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S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Critique Wednesday: Cohesion in Your Writing

Last week on Critique Wednesday, we talked about sweeping story analysis and how it provides some of the structure for your story. Today, I'm zooming in the microscope to look at micro-craft analysis, and how it's the glue that holds your story together.

"How you begin a sentence determines its clarity; how you end it determines its rhythm and grace." - Joseph M. Williams in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace

One of the best bits of critique advice I received early on was to read Joseph Campbell's Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. I read Campbell's book, one chapter at a time, and applied the lessons to sequential chapters of my WiP. It was amazing how much clarity and grace was missing from my work that I didn't even realize.

Style goes beyond action verbs and dives into things like the rhythm and shape of a paragraph and the importance of stress positions in a sentence.

Sometime after reading Style, I discovered something else about my writing process: when I wrote worse (in the first draft), I ended up writing better (in the final draft). This was true for individual paragraphs as well as the story as a whole. Prior to that, I labored over every sentence, "perfecting" it before moving on to the next and the next. Once I freed myself to write quickly, getting out things like dialogue, plot and emotion first, I found I could go back and revise in the style, clarity, and grace. I had decoupled the two processes (drafting and editing). And an abysmal sentence was easier to rip apart and rewrite than a finely crafted one.

(It's somewhat hilarious for me to look back on an old post about the Tale of Two Pants, written while I was in the middle of this discovery process and soaking up lessons from Campbell.)

Rather than go through Campbell's book point-by-point (you should read it yourself), I will take a paragraph from my current WiP through my revision process, right before your very eyes! This is somewhat like getting dressed in public, something I don't really recommend, but I'm willing to forgo modesty in hopes that someone might find it illuminating (or perhaps just entertaining). I've picked a suitably non-spoilerish paragraph from Free Souls, a story I'm only half-way through drafting now.

First Draft - get it on the page
It was an old power plant, one of the super polluters in the middle of the city that had been shut down when Chicago depopulated under the range ordinances. Its towering chimney hadn’t spouted plumes of coal soot into the city’s airscape in a hundred years, replaced by clean burning hydro power when it been upgraded not long ago to provide extra power generation during peak times. Julian had briefed us all about the inner workings of the power gen station before the mission, in that professor voice he slipped into when mired in the details of things. The outside was ancient, red crumbling brick that had weathered well over a hundred punishing Chicago winters. It was a giant squarish block of red brick, three stories tall, with another block of deeper red brick on top, piling on another three stories. The defunct red and white striped chimney climbed into the gray Chicago sky above it, like a candle on an industrial birthday cake that would never be lit again. Coal used to be delivered in barges on the nearby Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal which lived up to its name in the sour odor that still wafted across from it.


Oh my heck, what is that even saying? Besides rambling on massive amounts of description? But I spilled out the details, the tidbits that I wanted to make sure got into the story at one point, and this is first draft. It's supposed to suck.


Second Draft - clean it up
  • Shape your paragraph: each paragraph should tell a mini-story. My jumbled mess above needs to be shaped into a narrative.
He had briefed us all on the inner workings of the power station in that professor voice he slipped into when mired in the details of things. The Crawford power plant was ancient— its red crumbling brick, three stories tall, had weathered a hundred punishing Chicago winters, and the defunct red and white striped chimney climbed into the gray sky above it, like a candle on an industrial birthday cake that would never be lit again. Its towering chimney hadn’t spouted plumes of coal soot into the city’s airscape in a hundred years, not since the city depopulated under the mindreading range ordinances. Now it burned clean hydro power to provide extra power generation during peak times. 
Well, that's a little better. I now have an intro, description, function/history, and current use. At least it makes some sense now, and I've trimmed out the repeats and extraneous information. So the coherence of the paragraph as a whole isn't too bad. Let's shape up the individual sentences a bit ...

Third Draft - coherence and cohesion
  • the power "of": using "of" phrases have a certain power behind them, an abstraction that lands a punch, especially if used at the end of a sentence ("of a sentence"). Here the phrase mired in the details of things is a little wordy, but it uses a powerful "of" statement at the end, implying that these things are important and we should take note of them.
  • The end of one sentence should lead to the next: this adds flow from sentence to sentence.  I've rearranged the second sentence, so that details leads straight to crumbling red brick, which sets a tone of decay that gets echoed throughout the sentence with weathered and defunct.
  • Don't repeat your repeats: wordsmithery is awesome, but don't say the same thing twice. I've cleaned up the repetition about the chimney never being lit again and not spouting plumes for a hundred years - I really liked both descriptions, but had to choose one, and by eliminating the never being lit again, I can end the sentence with industrial birthday cake, a complex and evocative noun description. (Nouns are power words and the ends of sentences are power positions; putting a noun at the end of a sentence adds weight to it.)
  • Echoes bring cohesion: i.e. don't be random. If your paragraph has a theme, echo that theme with power words that reinforce it. (crumbling, weathered, defunct) (note repeats are different than echoes, which are variations on the theme)
  • Achieve balance in the force: vary sentence length and structure to achieve balance, but reserve super short sentences for where they will have maximum punch. In this case, the last sentence was unbalanced, too short and missing a final conclusion to the paragraph, so I added more words to give a final punch - which also echoes the beginning He had briefed us with a final our plan.
He had briefed us on the inner workings of the power station, slipping into that professor voice he used when mired in the details of things. The crumbling red brick of the Crawford power plant had weathered a hundred punishing Chicago winters, and the defunct red and white striped chimney climbed into the gray sky, like a candle on an industrial birthday cake. It hadn’t spouted plumes of coal soot into the city’s airscape in a hundred years, not since the city depopulated under the mindreading range ordinances. Now hydro generators provided clean power during peak demand times, making it a key part of our plan.

Fourth Draft - a dash of style
  • Don't forget voice: once your sentences are tuned up, go back and make sure the voice is still there. While the sentences now flow, somewhat, and the scene is set, we're still a bit too removed from the character. There needs to be a bit more style, more flavor of the character's voice. Plus had weathered and climbed were mismatched, so I reworked that entire sentence for better flow, and reclaimed the three stories lost before. And the last sentence needed a better tie-in to the previous ones.
He had briefed us on the inner workings of the power station, slipping into that professor voice he used when mired in the details of things. The Crawford power plant had weathered a hundred punishing Chicago winters, with three stories of crumbling red brick holding up a defunct red-and-white striped chimney that climbed into the gray sky, like a candle on an industrial birthday cake. It hadn’t spouted plumes of coal soot into the city’s airscape in a hundred years, not since the city depopulated under the mindreading range ordinances. Now the hydro generators puffed out water vapor clouds, providing clean power during peak demand and making the station a key part of our plan.
Better. :)

I probably would still go a few rounds on this, but it's close. And it may be reworked entirely to fit with the paragraphs before and after. But now it's not just description - it's a paragraph that pulls you into the scene, with story and movement, one sentence flowing after the other, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading the reader forward.

I hope that this will inspire you to pick up Campbell's book and discover the power of wordsmithery within.

p.s. Hop over to Marilyn's blog where I'm doing an interview and giveaway of Closed Hearts.
As promised, I'm giving away another 5 page critique!

Legalese: I'll randomly chose a winner of a 5 page critique via Rafflecopter. The critiques will be offline, not posted on the blog. My critique philosophy is "honesty with kindness." I believe someone can't learn while they're in pain, so it's important to temper the truth with gentleness. I also believe my job as a critiquer is to help you tell your story better, not change it to be the story I would write.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

32 comments:

  1. Great post! Loved your example and your various drafts. I think playing with words and fine tuning is one of the best parts of writing. I'm constantly learning!

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    1. Thanks! I enjoy wordsmithing more, now that I have the tools to do it. :)

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  2. Great post! Interesting that you work best with a "worse" first draft. (Oh, how was that for poor writing. LOL)

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    1. LOL! There just isn't a good way to say that! Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  3. Love the post. And oooooh more craft books to check out. :D

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  4. I really enjoyed reading this post! Thanks! I think the thing that most caught my eye was the idea of nouns being power words and placing them at the end of a sentence. I'll have to try that.

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    1. There's lots of treasures like that in Williams' book. :) Glad you enjoyed it!

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  5. Awesome post! Reading examples is the best way to learn.

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    1. I think so too! Thanks for stopping by! :)

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  6. Rhythm, cadence, diction, style. They seem so simple at first glance, but together it can be a complex beast. Noticing how each piece fits together, and arranging them for best effect, can take a lot of work.

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    1. You are not kidding! :) And therein lies the temptation for endless fiddling as well. It's like a complicated clockwork where all the pieces have to fit just so in order to sing, and yet there's enough looseness in the gears that you can have an infinite variation of ways the pieces go together.

      Or something like that.

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  7. Shew! This feels like a lot of information, but it's all GOOD information! I really like the part about the power "of." And the thing about each sentence leading into the next. It makes me think of a trick I try to use, which is hearing the "music" of my words in addition to the meaning. Does that make sense?

    Great book tip, Susan! thanks~

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    1. I love the idea of "music" - in fact there's a whole section in Campbell's book about rhythm. There's a certain science behind it, but it's mostly art. And you train your ear to "hear" the music in the words by lots (and lots) of reading. #coolstuff

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  8. Great approach to craft and revision, Susan. Thanks for the book suggestion. Very helpful.

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  9. Loved this! Especially the use of examples. Nice job!

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  10. I just recently learned to stop agonizing over everything in the first draft. I think you recall my first attempt at a novel -- I wrote, re-wrote, and re-rewrote the first chapter several times and it still never felt quite right. For my current WIP, I decided to just roll with it. I have a fully formed first draft that sounds like... well, a first draft. But the ideas are the, the story is there, and I agree, it's so much easier to get it all down and then clean up than it is to try to have everything PERFECT on the first go-round.

    Thanks for showing your drafting process -- I liked seeing the transformation from first draft to fourth draft. What a change :P

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    1. Hooray for your first draft! I know that was a leap for you, so GOOD ON YOU! Part of that is having the faith in yourself that you can revise it to make it better. In fact, a lot of writing is about having faith in yourself, your story - not a blind kind of faith, based on nothing but hope, but a faith in your willingness to work hard and learn how to make it the best it can be.

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  11. Great info, some I haven't seen on blogs before. I'll definitely check out that book, it sounds very helpful.

    I'm finding out the long hard way that getting a first draft down with minimal tinkering is the way to go. I get much better results that way. Plus, you can't edit what's not on the page, so better to get a page needing editing than two highly crafted sentences that don't go anywhere!

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    1. So, so true - you can't edit what's not on the page! I'll bring the book tonight to SCBWI so you can take a peek at it. :)

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  12. I love your point about a worse first draft lends itself to a better final draft. I've never thought of it like that before. That mindset only empowers writing novels during JuNoWriMo and NaNoWriMo, which is what I prefer to do.

    I love seeing how you tidied up that paragraph. However, getting that detailed and doing that many revisions on such a small piece feels very...intense. I'm a little overwhelmed by the prospect of having to doctor a full novel that in depth once it's final. Maybe it's just because I'm in the first draft stage now. I'd rather not even think about editing yet. But those tips might be helpful when I come back around.

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    1. I figured the fast-drafting thing out before NaNo, but it definitely made NaNo more appealing. And yes, this level of micro-editing is very intense. But I don’t usually do all five drafts in one sweep like this small example. Definitely purge this from your mind until you’re ready to face edits – it’s a whole different part of the brain for me!

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  13. I love how you include an example so that I can see how it is supposed to work as opposed to just telling me to do something and then not showing.

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  14. What a thorough post. I can see exactly what you're trying to do here between description and examples. It's a trick to maintain voice when revising. I'm going to pay attention to these details more in the editing process.

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    1. Voice needs to rule, which is why it comes last (for me) – well first, in the first draft, and then last, to make sure I tidy things up. :)

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  15. You keep making me buy books. I'm going to have to start sending the bills to your house.

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  16. What a great post and thorough example of how to improve through drafts. It inspires me through my line edit!

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  17. Your posts are always so educational. Thank you.

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  18. Sue, ah! Going to pick up a copy of Campbell's book.

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Erudite comments from thoughtful readers