High Intensity Sentence Training
The most important part of writing is rewriting.
–Every published author, writing teacher, and book on writing in the history of the field. (paraphrased)
It’s hard to make yourself sit down and write. Once you break through that barrier, you come face to face with the much worse truth that you’ve just done the easy part.
The fact is that even you can write pretty good first drafts, your writing is a weak copy of what it is supposed to be until it’s been thoroughly edited and rewritten.
But damn is rewriting hard. One of the hardest parts about it happens at the level of the individual sentence. When you go back and read your own writing, it’s easy to get trapped into thinking that your sentences are “just fine.” The might not be great, but it feels difficult to come up with a way to change them. They do the job. They’re not beautiful, but they’re structural. They hold the whole thing up, and you are worried that if you fiddle too much everything will come crashing down.
This exercise is here to help. This is a deliberate practice exercise, which means that it is intensive, tedious, and a lot of work. But if you do it enough times, it could transform how you look at your own sentences.
Here it is:
Take a sentence you have written. Now rewrite the sentence 50 times.
That’s it. Sounds simple, right? But not easy. Like I said, it’s tedious. Like practicing tiny variations on your golf swing over and over and over until you get it right.
To really get the benefits from this exercise, you have to do it a lot. Just like any other exercise. Say, three times a week for a month, just for starters. Just like starting a new workout routine, you won’t even know if you are getting benefits for a few weeks. But once they come they’ll be enormous.
I’ll post a link first try at this exercise at the end.
Here are a few rules about the exercise. They’re designed to give you some focus so you get the most out of the exercise. Don’t worry so much about whether you’re following the rules that you spend 20 minutes memorizing them and never get to the actual work! That’s a method of stalling. The rules are designed to be intuitive, so just read them through and get going.
Rule 1: To start, pick a sentence that’s long enough that you can play with it. The shorter the sentence the more challenging the exercise. It would be very difficult to write “See Dick Run” in 50 different ways. That’s like starting with a 200 lbs bench press. Work up to it!
Here’s my sample sentence:
Every summer John and Lilly spent their days up by the lake, where they picked crabapples from the tree and skipped them across the water.
Rule 2: Copy and paste your sample sentence 50 times in a document, and then work from there. That way you have to edit the sentence directly, just like you would do while editing a manuscript. For some of your entries you’re going to want to delete the sentence and write it over again. That’s fine. But by making yourself delete the sentence it will feel more like editing and less like brainstorming.
Rule 3: Minor tweaks are fine. It’s not cheating to flip a few words around. That’s a huge part of the rewriting process, and one that beginnings often miss. Sometimes flipping the order of two words has a surprising impact on the meaning.
Every summer John and Lilly spent their days up by the lake…
is a different sentence than
Every summer Lilly and John spent their days up by the lake…
Putting Lilly first places a different spin on the sentence and it’s meaning. It looks small, but rewriting isn’t about making a few powerful changes. It’s about making hundreds of tiny changes that add up to a much better manuscript.
Rule 4: You can add or subtract information, as long as it’s all accurate.
Every summer John and his sister Lilly spent their days up by the lake…
That’s fine because I know they are brother and sister. You’re allowed to include or remove that kind of information, but don’t change it. You can’t suddenly decide that Lilly is John’s mother. That’s not editing, that’s changing the story. It’s a valuable skill, but not the one we are practicing here. At the same time, your original sentence might be too wordy and contain unnecessary information.
John and Lilly spent their summer days up by the lake.
The crabapple detail might be unnecessary and distracting.
Rule 5: Don’t change tense. You wouldn’t change tense in the middle of a manuscript, so don’t do it here either.
Rule 6: It is fine to break the sentence into multiple sentences. Don’t feel artificially constrained to stick to one sentence just because that’s where you started.
Every summer John and Lilly spent their days up by the lake. They loved to pick crab apples from the tree and skip them across the water.
Rule 7: Every sentence needs to be usable. They need to be grammatical, but also stylistically viable. They don’t have to be beautiful, but the goal here is to improve your writing, not just finish the exercise. Any sentence that is so hideous that you’d scrap it the second you put a period on the other end doesn’t count.
Up by the lake it was crab apples that John, during summer days, picked and skipped across the water, along with Lilly who did it as well.
I feel dirty. That sentence is grammatical—or close enough for prose work—but it’s so ugly that I wouldn’t use it. So it doesn’t go in the 50. Whether a sentence feels “viable” is up to you. Don’t spend more than a second on it. If it doesn’t make you say “blech” when you read it, it’s probably fine. Even if it does you might want to just move on and perhaps add a few more after 50 just to be sure you’ve done the exercise.
Rule 8: Don’t go back to check your earlier entries as you write. That’ll just kill your momentum. It’s okay if you have a few repeats. Just keep writing.
That’s it! Give it a try, and let me know what you think.
Here is a link to my first go at this exercise. Read it if you want to see an example. Prepared to be insired…and also bored to tears. It’s 50 of the same sentence! What do you want from me?
Lyrical Prose and the Perfect Baguette
Baking bread is one of the most difficult forms of cooking. A baguette might have a few as four ingredients: flower, water, salt, and yeast. It is utterly simple, but a fantastic baguette is one of the most sublime of all culinary experiences. Yet the difference between a great baguette and a passable one is very subtle.
Put an amateur baker next to a master and ask them both to make you a baguette. Give them the same ingredients, the same professional equpment, and the same amount of time. Watch them work. If you don’t have much experience with baking you might not be able to see the differences in their approach and technique. The master will look more relaxed and controlled, of course, but relaxation is not the difference.
You might not be able to identify what the two of them do differently. But be sure that you’ll be able to taste it. The master’s bread with have better texture, better flavor. The crust will be snappier, and the inside will be fluffier and more elegantly yield to the pressure of your teeth as you chew. The tang of lactic acid and alcohol from the fermentation will be beautifully balanced, and it will have little to no starchy or grassy, underdeveloped taste.
The amateur will have no idea what they did wrong. If they watch the master closely they will definitely learn something. But they won’t be able to reproduce the master’s creation. Not right away. Not without hundreds or thousands of hours of practice.
Next, have both of these bakers make a pizza. Give them the same San Marazano tomatoes with which to make a sauce, the same dry-cured linguica, roasted garlic, and heirloom red sweet peppers. All they have to do is make the crust, assemble their pizzas, then bake them in the same wood burning clay pizza oven. How different do you think the two pizzas will be?
The master’s crust will be better, of course. That probably means their pizza will be better. Crust is, after all, very important. But the difference will be nowhere near as dramatic as the baguette, even though pizza crust and baguettes are very similar forms of bread. There is also every chance that the amateur baker makes even better tomato sauce than the master. After all, this is a master baker we are talking about. Not a master tomato sauce maker. The thousands of hours spend learning to knead and proof bread don’t necessarily translate to blending the flavors of tomato, onion, and basil into a perfectly seasoned and integrated sauce. And we all know there is more to great pizza than just the crust.
Elegant and beautiful prose is one of the hardest forms of writing. You might not be able to write as well as James Joyce, Toni Morrison, or David Foster Wallace. You might never be able to write as well as they do. Not everyone can become a master baker, no matter how much kneading they do. But a story is more than just prose. It has characters, and conceptual framework, and dialogue.
Not all of us can make amazing baguettes. The simpler something is, the more subtle and transcendent the skill-set needed to make it truly magnificent. But every writer can learn to make great pizza. Work on your tomato sauce. Or your garlic roasting ability. Or figure out a combination of ingredients no one has ever tried before.
All that matters is that it’s delicious.
Automatic Creativity In Action
We talked about how and why performing automatic activities such as writing and showering lead to creative thinking. Now we discuss specific ways to put this into practice. Many writers suggest that if you struggling to find ideas and not finding them you should go for a walk. That’s a great place to start. But once you understand the mechanisms that underlie why going for a walk launches you into a creative space, you can take some extra steps to make it work even better.
Here are a few good ones.
1. Prime the Pump Before Activity
The problem with letting your mind wander freely is that it wanders freely. Maybe you go for a walk hoping for a breakthrough on how your characters can overcome a specific obstacle, but instead you find yourself brainstorming about how to remodel your kitchen. So before you go, put yourself into the right head space. Read the last few pages of what you have written. Or spend 10 minutes brainstorming, no matter how unproductive it is. Then immediately go for that walk. Make sure to put your shoes on first.
2. Perform Automatic Writing Every Single Day
Automatic writing is another oft-prescribed trick for generating ideas. If you have tried it and it hasn’t worked for you it is probably for a very simple reason: it isn’t automatic enough. If you don’t write very often, or you are in a slump where you haven’t been writing lately (it happens to all of us!) you might be struggling just to force yourself to move forward. This makes the activity deliberate rather than automatic, and so it isn’t nearly so creative. Try doing 10 minutes of automatic writing every day. Because it is such a simple and natural activity (after all, you are a writer), it likely won’t take more than a few days to become automatic. Then you can just sit back and watch the creativity pour out of you.
3. Do Writing Drills
Writing prompts can be great, but they are the opposite of automatic. If you struggle with generating ideas writing prompts can often cause the worst kind of mental freeze-ups, because they start you from an absolutely blank canvas. A better way to use them is to flip the entire concept of writing prompts around. Instead of doing a new prompt when you need a creative boost, trying practicing the same prompt over and over again. It should be a fairly open-ended prompt with a lot of creative space, but not too much. It should also be fairly short. Here is an example:
4. Write one page of dialogue between two characters that hate each other.
At first it will be difficult. But once you do it 10 or 20 or 50 times, you’ll be amazed at how automatic the activity will become. Not only will you start to develop your own patterns and formulas for this specific task, it will lead to a place of automaticity where your mind can work on other, related things. You might find on your 50th repeat of this prompt that it leads to insight into an entirely different piece of dialogue you’ve been struggling with.
5. Try Structured Automatic Writing
This is a strange technique, so bear with me. Write a detailed outline of a very short story. Make sure that you know exactly how the story will play so that when you write it there will be no surprises or difficulty. Once you have done this, go ahead and write the story as quickly as possible, without taking your fingers off of the keyboard. Don’t worry if the story is any good!
When you do this a few times you will find that the act of writing the story becomes rather automatic. It is a lot like going for a walk, only you are writing. It will free up your creative mind in a similar way, and as soon as you are finished the automatic writing task you can jump straight into whatever piece of writing you were originally working on.
6. Combined Automaticity With Association
I find it even easier to be creative when the physical space or conditions are the same as they were last time I was creative. Walking is good, but walking the same path can be even better. You can enhance this effect by adding other sense. Start your creative activity by listening to a specific song, or eating an apple. Then, next time, when you listen to that song or taste that apple your brain will go to the same creative place it did before. When you want to go for a walk to think creatively about a different subject, listen to a different song or eat a different fruit. One theory about creativity is that it is associative memory that works quickly. Use your brains strong links between association and sensation to supercharge this effect.
When Writing Isn’t Like Oxygen
When you ask writers why they write, or how they find the motivation to keep going, you often hear an answer like this:
I’ve always written. When I was little I would sneak away from my parents and sit under a tree and just write and write. For me, writing is like oxygen. It’s like food. It nourishes my life and my waking moments. There’s never been a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. I couldn’t not write even if I wanted to.
For some aspiring writers an answer like this is inspiring, because they feel exactly the same way.
For others it’s terrifying.
If you don’t feel like this, is there any point in trying to be a writer? Do you need to wake up with story ideas swimming behind your eyes, bursting to flood out through your fingertips?
The idea used to scare the hell out of me. Don’t get me wrong; I love writing, and I have from a young age. But I love a lot of other things, too. I’ve gone for years without doing much of any writing at all. Whenever I heard a writer talking about how “writing is like oxygen” and how they couldn’t live without it, my insides tensed up. Did this mean I didn’t have what it took to be a writer? Is it worth writing at all if it isn’t an all-consuming passion?
Those fears were thoroughly squashed by a panel I attended at a science fiction convention. The panel was called “Organic vs. Structured Writing,” and it was hosted by four published, successful SF novelists.
Someone asked the panelists the dreaded question, as someone always done in something like this. “Why do you write? How do you find the motivation to keep writing?”
The first answer came from a writer who was very much on the “organic writing” side of the equation. She gave the same answer I had come to expect. Writing was like breathing. She has never gone a day without writing. She has to either write or explode.
My heart sank. And then the next panelist spoke up, and changed everything.
“Writing is very difficult for me. I have to struggle to make myself write every day. When I’m between novels I can spend weeks or even months without writing, and without even thinking much about writing. It’s important to write as often as you can, but you have to be realistic. A good start is to write 500 words a day, and see where that gets you. I remember once I set myself a task where I tried to write 1000 words every day for a month, and I couldn’t do it.”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. This was a published, successful science fiction novelist. She had written half a dozen novels and right now was addressing a panel full of fans who were desperate to replicate her success.
She didn’t write every day.
She didn’t feel that if she didn’t spend every free moment writing she would explode.
She didn’t have the all-consuming passion to write at the expense of everything else in her life.
And she made it anyway.
It’s important to love writing if you want to be a writer. Passion is certainly a part of the equation. But it isn’t the whole equation, and it isn’t the only option.
Professional writers have a wide variety of personality types and approaches to their writing. You don’t need an enormous wellspring of passion. You just need enough to make you care. Enough to make you keep going. You have your own reason why writing is important enough to you for you to pursue it, despite all of the difficulties. That reason, in all its nuance and complexity, is unique to you.
Whatever it is, it’s enough.