Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Anatomy of a Paragraph

Look at the image above. This is a screen shot from the film classic “The Seven Samurai”. The samurai's name is Kyuzo, a supporting character in the story. This is the image which I have as a wallpaper on the old laptop where I do my writing. He's there to remind me of what I’m trying to do.

To keep it short, seven samurai are recruited to protect a village of poor rice farmers from a gang of bandits. The farmers don’t have any money, so each samurai has his own reasons for suiting up. Kyuzo is a pure swordsman. The sword is his zen, and his life is spiritually devoted to perfecting his art. He joins the samurai because he admires Kambei, the leader, and because it offers an opportunity to improve his fighting skill through genuine combat.

Look at the way he stands. Right knee bent at a perfect angle. Center of gravity balanced between the hips. Back straight, shoulders flat. Relaxed but attentive. His arms, his precise grip on the ends of the sword handle – one palm in, one palm out – the stony expression on his face of professional focus and attention, without gloating over the opponent he has just killed in a duel. If you enrolled in a Kendo school or studied a book that would be a formal pose with a fancy name. That pose would be arrived by a series of movements each with fancy names which, when perfectly executed, will terminate in that pose of self-possessed follow through. These movements would be the result of a cool tactical decision, like a chess move, chosen intuitively in an instant of mortal danger. This is a master swordsman doing everything exactly right. Baby, that gives me the fan-tods.

After banging away at this writing thing for the last three years all the visions of sugar plums have stopped dancing in my head. They’ve been pretty much knocked out of my head. I’m never going to make any money at this. I’m just not that guy. So I had to do a lot of soul searching as to why I should go on doing it. I decided I want to reach that place personified by Kyuzo up there with his perfect sword stance. I want to be that guy someday.

Words are the writer’s sword. I aspire to wield words someday the way Kyuzo handles his katana. With precision and craft resulting in effect. This isn’t something everybody can do. Its an intuitive gift that you cherish by nurturing it with hard work. Hard work means arduous rewriting as long as it takes until you finally get it right, and close reading the stories of others. Prose artists like Nicholson Baker or Angela Carter you should study on your knees. A writer should develop an ear for the right word the way a musician develops an ear for the right note. I have one thing going for me - I love the sound of words. I close-study plays by Peter Schaeffer and Martin McDonagh, and read stories by Elmore Leonard just to hear what the human conversation sounds like when its done right. Sometimes when I have nothing to write about, I’ll get a book of Angela Carter stories and a pencil and just write out her paragraphs word forword, pretending they're mine. I do that to get a feeling of what it sounds like to compose those excellent sentences in your head, the way Kyuzo might go through his sword postures with a wooden sword to teach his body how it feels when its being done exactly right.

I write stories the way a painter paints, by starting with a pencil sketch of words and layering over it. When the layers become complex enough the story begins to reveal its internal truth. If there is no internal truth I stick it in a drawer for the future. There has to be a truth in that story, something soulful that speaks to me, or the story is dead. I hate sloppy writing, even when the story is good. I adore beautiful writing even when the story is thin. Take Edgar Allen Poe. Poe is all about atmosphere and build up. His story plots are very simple, almost nothing. In “The Masque of the Red Death”, my favorite Poe story, Prince Prospero isolates his rich friends in his castle for a costume ball while the plague burns through the people of his kingdom. The Red Death shows up at his party personified as a guest dressed as an infected corpse and everybody dies. That’s it. Forget it. That’s all that happens. You can see the whole thing coming as soon as you read the title. The Masque of the Red Death is a wonderful study in language and atmosphere. Poe makes love to the reader with a slow hand and exquisite fore play. In the hands of a writer of less genius, (less genius. . . yuck. lesser genius. . no . . . something missing . . . a lesser genius. . . I dunno, maybe. . . its those two "of"s. . . its like you stumble over them and fall on your face . . . ) this story wouldn’t make it out of the slush pile. (Make it out of the slush pile. . . make it past the slush pile. . . out of the slush pile. . . past… no, definitely past. Bam. Boom.) In the hands of a writer of a lesser genius, this story wouldn’t make it past the slush pile. (still not right)

Which brings us to the hammer and nails of writing – language. Words and sentences. The delicious paragraph. Yum yum. Last week I posted some short vignettes. This was harder than it looked, because I tend to write long because I love words (using “because” two times in a sentence. Monstrous. Can't believe I get away with this shit . . . Note to self: kill one of those “becauses” when you rewrite this beast). This time I had to write very, very short, almost like a prose poem. Every word had to carry its weight like a prose poem. Every sentence had to convey as much as possible in a short space (redundant . . . like a prose poem. . . This time I had to write very, very short . . . period, stop, shuddup.) Every sentence had to convey as much as possible in a short space, like a prose poem. (okay) I want to show you how this thought process works.

Paragraph 1ver1 (lead into Cicada vignette)

The young man whispers in his sleep. The pink dawn is seeping thru the window. The cicadas have stopped singing at last. Without waking, he bunches his blanket under his groin and rubs hard against it.(I like this paragraph because of the drama of its short, punchy, prosaic sentences. But it still sounds wrong when I read it out loud. My ear doesn't like it. Why? Gotta think about it. How would Nicholson Baker do it? Because this is for a blog I don’t have the luxury of writing with my verbiage romping through the daisies. Three sentences in a row start with “The”. Hemingway could get away with that shit back in the day – he would never use the word “pink” in anything - but not a lesser mortal like me. Gotta rearrange it.)


The young man whispers in his sleep. The pink dawn is seeping thru the window. The cicadas have stopped singing at last. Without waking, grunting with urgency, he bunches his blanket under his groin and rubs hard against it.(A passive sentence. Geezus, I’m getting worse. And I’ve still got those three “the”s kicking their heels. If this were sword practice I would have cut my effing foot off by now.)


The young man whispers in his sleep. The pink dawn is seeping thru the window. Without waking, he bunches his blanket under his groin and rubs hard against it, grunting with urgency.
The cicadas have stopped singing at last.
(Reorganized that limp wristed sentence, and broke up that little conga line of “the”s. Now “cicadas” has it’s own isolated paragraph, the way Ray Bradbury would do it If this were a movie the sound track orchestra would have just made a dramatic “da –DUM!” But does it deserve that much dramatic weight? “Holy Shit! The cicadas have stopped singing at last.” Da-DUM! Naw. This isn’t “Cicadas From Hell”, the cicadas aren’t hurting anybody.)
1ver4 The young man whispers in his sleep. The pink dawn is seeping thru the window. He bunches his blanket under his groin without waking and rubs hard against it, grunting with urgency. The cicadas have stopped singing at last.(Okay, stay with that one.)

By the way, just so you know – when I write a story I do this with EVERY paragraph.


And that’s AFTER I’ve overhauled the story line over and over until I’ve run out of ideas. And then, if it’s potentially a good story, I offer it with reverence to my much cherished and long suffering First Reader, our own wise Lisabet, take seriously what she has to say – and by golly overhaul the bastard AGAIN! That’s how you get to be Kyuzo someday.

Now the paragraph is more or less in its final form let’s talk about what it says. It’s a little dinky paragraph, four lines. It doesn’t look like much. But tell you what; this is a very hard working paragraph. There’s a lot going on in this paragraph. Here’s how it breaks down: The young man whispers in his sleep. This is a cut scene, it links the vignettes and gives them a context. After all this was supposed to be on the subject of self loving. The cut scenes remind the reader that these vignettes are taking place in a certain context, one that sounds autobiographical. This ia very old form of storytelling, going back to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and even Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew (“Wow, Mr. Garcia; you know a lot about the great books. You’re smart and sexy.” Fucking right.) But the blog is more about the vignettes not the cut scenes, so I had to breeze over this part really quick, get it said and get out. The pink dawn is seeping thru the window. A scene, even a dinky one, requires setting and a sense of time. The long night is almost over and I’m letting the exhausted reader know we’re getting to the last vignette and wherever this whole thing is going. He bunches his blanket under his groin without waking and rubs hard against it, grunting with urgency. This is actually a very loaded sentence. It raises questions worth discussing, about the writer and his relationship with the reader. Hold this thought a second, because we’ll come back to it.

The cicadas have stopped singing at last.

I've decided that the sentence is not dramatic enough to have its own this-is-a-big-deal paragraph, but of sufficient gravity that it should be the last flash bulb going off in the reader’s eyes. Because – this is a cut scene, to what? Cicada vignette. I want the reader to be sure to get the idea, I’m practically hitting him/her over the skull with it – this last judgment hoo-hah is a riff on cicadas! Cicadas! Get it? Cicadas have stopped singing, and then here’s this dead geezer digging his way out of the ground. Get it? Get it? Sex and Cicadas?

Which brings us back to the significance of this sentence:

He bunches his blanket under his groin without waking and rubs hard against it, grunting with urgency.

Now dig this:
Any guy reading that sentence, knows this is a load of happy horseshit. This is not how its done in the real world. Wet dreams are their own autonomous thing. They are not initiated by anything a guy does with himself when he’s sound asleep. It’s out of our hands, so to speak. For a guilt ridden young man trying to break up with Sally Fivefingers, a wet dream is a freebie. So why this false description? The real question is – do you trust your reader’s ability to read well? Let’s do that again –

Do you trust your reader?

Holy Shit! Readers From Hell!

This is a big question for a writer. Do you trust the intelligence of your reader? Does your reader know how to read what you actually wrote? In my growing experience this is way more complicated than it looks. A sentence like “He bunches etc.” means I’m not sure if the reader, especially non-male readers, are going to twig to what’s going on here, so I’m embellishing it with false information. The guy’s jerking off in his sleep. But guys don’t jerk off in their sleep. I just don’t feel confident the average reader is going to get what's happening here if I don’t have Mr. Young Man do this Really Obvious Thing, so when I wrote that line I was having a little crisis of faith. I have cause to feel this way.

One of the early lessons I learned on ERWA is that when you post a story, people see what they've always been used to seeing, but they don’t always see what you’ve written. When I recently posted “The Lady and the Unicorn”, a Nixie story with very graphic violence and several references to blood drinking, one of the two people who read it (neither one liked it) never realized it was a vampire story in his comments! I don’t even know how that’s possible. I had to tell him. Dude - she's a vampire. Reading is an art. To read what an author has put in your hands requires skill, depending on the depth of the writer.

Writers and readers have a yin yang relationship. The writer is initiating this thing, the reader is responding to it. There’s something innately erotic going on. If the writer is good, the reader will allow herself to be charmed, then caressed, then seduced, and finally to surrender her imagination to the world of the story. If the writer draws attention to himself (“Look how good I’m writing!”) instead of the story, the reader will shove him off and button up her blouse.

In the end this brings up another question – who should you write for? How important is it to write for others rather than yourself and what is the artistic price for that?

That would be a subject for another blog.


  1. Garce,

    There are four words you should eliminate from your writing: to keep it short. LMAO!

    Seriously, you have a very intense voice, so it doesn't surprise me that you have a detailed way of writing. Whatever works for anyone is all good, IMO.

    Thanks for sharing!

    ~ Jenna

  2. Who should you write for? That's a complex question.

    Primarily, I write for myself. I have to. Then I temper it to the sensibilities of the market, if necessary...and it usually isn't. There are some terms some markets don't go for. You might have to make it hotter or cooler for a market.

    Some people are what I call mercenary writers. That's not a negative term. It's a way of saying they write for the market ONLY. It's a skill I don't possess and probably never will.

    Oh well... If it's not, it's not, and I'll live with that.


  3. Who do I write for? I write non-fiction, destination pieces and subjects of interet to homeowners, and for that work I write for my audience. My fiction books (2 published, 1 soon-to-be-released)--I write first for myself, then when I'm going through it again I think of how the reader will perceive it.

  4. Garce,

    I believe the term is long-winded!

    Ducking and running. Laughing too.

    Seriously, we all have our styles, things that work for us or things we're trying to find that will work for us better. Your skill with words is amazing. Your thirst for a better way to weave them into the pictures you see is a very good thing. Am I surprised you go over every paragraph trying to better it, no. Am I surprised at how intense your desire to create a more beautiful piece of work. No way. You love words too much and it shows.

    I will admit, you lose me sometimes. But, there are times when you're words are music.

    Who do I write for? Firstly myself. If I can't please myself with my writing, I feel there's no way I'll be able to please anyone else. That's not to say I'm 'into' all of the things I write about, but I do have to identify somehow with both the characters and the eventual readers. I also thing we're all very much alike in some ways. The kinks might be different, but the desire for pleasure borders on the same.

    Great blog, Garce.


  5. Hi Jenna!

    Are you kidding?? This is me when I AM writing short!

    You should see me when I'm writing LONG. Whew.


  6. Hi Brenna!

    I suppose all writing is a combination of for ourselves first and then for the market. I heardt hat J D Salinger has been writing for a long time and making no attempt to publish. Then there are the amazing writers who can earn a living with it. If I recall, you especially are very prolific. You have a lot of stuff out there.


  7. Hi Mary

    I think that's about right. A person writyes for themselves first, and then in the revision you're free to think a little more how it sounds to the reader and who the reader would be. My experience is that readers get confused very easily.


  8. Hi Jeremey

    I had to look up the word "meta-blogging". I never kenw there was such a thing, but I guess that's what I'm doing!


  9. Hey Jude

    I guess I am long winded, I get pretty wound up. I guess . . .

    I guess that's just the kind of man I am. You know the kind.


    Passionate. Intense. Sensual. Physical. Charismatic. Bad.

    Okay, that's horseshit. In the real world I'm such a quiet person people have talked about me in front of my back because they simply forgot I was in the room, and I don't get laid very often either.

    I come alive in the written word.



  10. Garce, you certainly do come alive with the written word. Great post.


  11. Hi Ashley!

    Thanks for reading my stuff!


  12. Garce,

    Prolific? Yes, that covers me pretty well. I've been published more than 75 times in the last seven years...14 of them novels. And I write in 20 series worlds.

    One thing I can say is that I didn't write two of my novels for a long time, because they didn't have HEAs. But the readers demanded them, and I wrote them. Darned if they aren't some of my better selling books. My perception of the market was off, I guess.


  13. Hello, Garce,

    You persist in torturing yourself, in torturing your words. Trust yourself instead. That comes before trusting the reader.

    I believe that truly great writing is not the product of obsessive concern with individual words and phrases. It's a gift from the unconscious. It's magic. If you work too hard you will kill the magic.

    Do you think that Kyuzo thinks about his stance? No way. The practice has to become mindless, moving from intention to intuition.

    Sorry to lecture you. But if you fiddle too much, you really do run the risk of extinguishing the spark that makes your writing so special.


  14. Matchless topic, it is very interesting to me))))


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