Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Vanessa: Healthy Micromanagement

Call me melodramatic, but I swear divine intervention stepped in after my brutal second semester as an MFA student at Vermont College. I had just spent five months moving at a sloth's pace with my creative work because my advisor, the inimitable Marc Aronson, wanted me to imbibe the pure essence of writing: to fully engage the reader in what the character was feeling, to make a visceral connection. Marc challenged me to get control of every line, to make each mark on the page matter, to agonize over every decision in the name of voice and characterization. If that meant only a single great paragraph by the semester's end, so be it.

Typical work fiend that I am, I made it my mission to emulate Aronson's "essence of writing" in my own work. I studied writers of the utmost restraint, writers who pick and place words and punctuation like perfect pebbles, precise and refined. I reshaped every noun and verb, sloughed away every adjective and adverb littering the path, extricated every meaningless summary, generalization, analysis, and abstraction. I nailed down the goal of each shot within a scene, figured out what my characters yearned for, and where they needed to be emotionally, mentally, by the end of each paragraph, each page.

Then I sat in front of my laptop and waited.
Wrote and crossed out and rewrote again.
A paragraph a day. A scene a week.
I'd send a piece out; Marc, God love him, he'd kick it kindly back.

Slowly, a terrible truth began to surface, bubbling beneath the critiques, infiltrating my own intuition. It was a truth I recognized from the "Interview with the Author" pages at the back of An Na's debut novel, A Step From Heaven: no matter how hard I worked at this point, my fledgling skills as a writer were not yet up to par with what I visualized or felt or heard in my head.

By the end of the semester, only paragraphs of my creative work were deemed “Masters-worthy” to Mr. Aronson. A crushing blow to the ego. But my critical work? That scientist’s eye? Soared. I sucked! Excellent. So what -- Quit?

I'm a silver-lining kind of girl; maybe it's a self-preservation mechanism. Anyway, I'm telling you, when the sophomore hazing ended, I felt different. Refreshed. Not in a masochistic manner of speaking. More like…I woke up…something…in me, my inner micromanager, who'd been prancing around with glee, pointing merrily to another truth, a miraculous one: the semester's challenges had played perfectly to my inherent detail-oriented tendencies, my strange fascination with the miniscule.

Enter Divinity with a way to crystallize all the introspection and heartache endured that previous semester: the Critical Thesis. I titled the sucker, Please, Sweat the Small Stuff: Shaping Tone with Sound and Syntax. In short? Healthy Micromanagement.

Here's the gist of what I learned, and it's at the heart of my thesis: Story is built upon voice, plot, setting, point of view, structure, imagery, and dialogue; yet, none of these macro-elements reach the reader without the fundamental microelements of sound and syntax. Sound (the articulation of letters, syllables, and words carrying within them distinct intonations) and syntax (the arrangement of words and punctuation to create rhythms and accentuation) must be layered in purposeful patterns throughout each scene of a novel in order to produce meaning, cadence, and mood that evoke an emotional response from the audience. Deliberately chosen words, sentence length, punctuation, and arrangement touch the reader’s emotions by shading meaning in the voice of narration on the page. Every line of every scene should carry calculated function and style so that the story reflects a character’s spirit from the first page to the final word.

Sound Bites

Words are made from combinations of sound, and every combination has its own distinct denotation and connotation. A house is a building in which a person resides; a home is the place in which a person carries out his domestic life. Though the definitions of house and home are similar, the words do not feel the same. A house implies a physical building structure filled with furniture, clothing, and people. A home signifies family, love, and security. Not only do we bring a unique personal history to each word, but also the very sounds of the letters that comprise the words suggest unspoken layers of meaning. For example, in these lines of Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, the reader senses the wired tone of the story through a series of long i sounds highlighted here:

“Grandma was born wired, and my dad, Carter Pigza, was born wired, and I followed right behind them. It’s as if our family tree looks like a set of high-voltage wires.”

Language is a system of communication governed by rules. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are the four word classes whose main objective is to carry content and meaning. If syntax and sound comprise the house in which a story is built, then nouns and verbs form the foundation and framing while adjectives and adverbs supply the ornamentation. Choosing the best words from these classes of speech requires the writer to explore their variety of sounds. One word can carry many layers of meaning and sound that affect tone. Precision is key when choosing what sounds will best flesh out a story. The meanings and melodies of words should play off one another to produce a distinct cadence. Listen to the lazy tone of this summer scene in Meg Rosoff’s novel, How I Live Now. It comes from the zzz sounds, short vowel sounds, and the long o in low, and closed:

“I just closed my eyes and watched the petals fall and listened to the heavy low buzz of fat pollen-drunk bees and tried to imagine melting into the earth so I could spend eternity under this tree.”

Imagine if the nouns were altered so that it read:

I just closed my eyelids and watched the leaves fall and listened to the heavy low murmur of fat pollen-drunk bugs and tried to picture melting into the ground so I could stay forever under this branch.

Not quite the same, dreamy tone.

Gantos and Rosoff's deliberate sound patterns convey their characters’ temperaments, creating tempo for the scenes and planting seeds of subtext within the spaces between words.

Sound Barriers

Sound is essential to the flesh of a story, but it cannot save a poorly executed idea. Any decent adjective or adverb can be blacklisted for unnecessary modification, any verb or noun for not standing vigorously on its own. Stephenie Meyer provides an unsuccessful example of sound in her New York Times best-selling novel, Twilight. Sour seventeen-year old Bella Swan moves from Phoenix to her father’s house in Forks, Washington where she falls for a hunk of a vampire named Edward. While the plot may appeal to teen readers looking for both edge and romance, the voice of Bella often drowns in sloppy linguistics. In the following passage, it is next to impossible to discern meaning out of the clutter of adverbs. (Notice, too, that the father’s name, Charlie, has the same –ly ending as the surrounding pile of adverbs. I’ve also bolded any other distracting words that follow this same long e sound):

Charlie had really been fairly nice about the whole thing. He seemed genuinely pleased that I was coming to live with him for the first time with any degree of permanence. He’d already gotten me registered for high school and was going to help me get a car."

This is a clear case of both mindless sound repetition and unnecessary modification. Meyer has disabled otherwise vigorous nouns and adjectives that could have easily stood on their own. The passage is glutted and imprecise. Meyer needs to pick the right words and stick to them. As editor and author Constance Hale says, “Verbose is not a synonym for literary." As Hemingway puts it, “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over."

The Flesh and the Underbelly

The flesh of a story is the words and symbols on the page, the details that drive a novel and fill the story with rich, interconnected ideas. The underbelly is what is left off the page, the silence within the tiny pockets between letters and the white space surrounding words that is ripe with its own implicit significance. Both flesh (sound, syntax) and underbelly (silence) are essential to story. Award-winning author Ursula Le Guin describes these two concepts as crowding and leaping. Although crowding keeps the story full and moving with explicit thoughts, Le Guin states, “what you leave out is infinitely more than what you leave in. There’s got to be white space around the word, silence around the voice."

Silence, The Underbelly of Sound

Silence is the breath between descriptions. It is a signal of movement in story, and the shape of that movement across a page, scene, or complete body of work. “Some of the greatest writing mankind has ever produced comes in the caesura; the pause between words” says Newberry award-winning author, Madeleine L’Engle.

Silence is a masterful translator of subtext and tone in fiction. Whether through omission of words or packed within the words themselves, silence sharpens the reader’s moment-to-moment sense impressions, it converts every inch of the page into priceless real estate. A story stripped to its barest essentials requires a deep journey of the mind and heart, within the author and between the author and the reader. Silence is the tree of thought that an author plants within the reader. It requires that she listen, and wait, and see the truth behind the quiet, often absent words on a page, for these truths are the magical fruits of labor and restraint. These are the truths that leave the reader breathless, that endure long beyond the final page.

Rita Williams-Garcia writes sparse, poignant dialogue. In Every Time A Rainbow Dies, sixteen-year old Thulani witnesses the rape of Ysa in a Brooklyn alley. He falls for the headstrong, colorful girl and both in time discover how love heals the heart. Perhaps the most telling line in Williams-Garcia’s entire novel is a dialogue compressed into three words. “‘I am Ysa.'" The greatest gift Thulani can ever receive, the most precious and personal thing the young rape victim has left to share, is her name. In three quiet, one-syllable words, Ysa opens up the entire novel with her confession. The reader senses more clearly here than anywhere else that the two teenagers will enter into a trusting and healing relationship. Williams-Garcia’s line of dialogue is the ultimate example of silence on the page. Her writing is so pristine that her restraint never once confuses the reader; rather, it sharpens her senses and understanding of the characters in a near mystical way.

Belly Up

On the other hand, too much sound in a quiet moment ruins the tone of the scene. In Twilight, after Bella reaches her father’s home and checks out her cool, new vintage truck, she locks herself in her room, telling the reader that she needs to have a good cry. As if these tones weren’t already at odds with one another, Bella’s internal dialogue seems all the more out of sync. The reader is supposed to feel Bella’s sorrow for having left her life in Phoenix; the scene should feel sparse, tense, heartrending. Instead, sound doesn’t echo sense and this passage is noisy, overcrowded, and trite: “It was nice to be alone, not to have to smile and look pleased; a relief to stare dejectedly out the window at the sheeting rain and let just a few tears escape. I wasn’t in the mood to go on a real crying jag. I would save that for bedtime."

Meyer is not aware of how loud this passage truly is. Ineffective words like nice, look, dejectedly, and just are drab. They scrape and shamble along the length of the line, dumping noise pollution all over this quiet moment. Even a small dose of revisions and reading the lines aloud makes a world of difference in toning down this passage: “I shut the door and stared out the window where the afternoon rain fell in jagged sheets. This was home now--Charlie, the truck, this endless green. It wasn’t even bedtime and there I was, crying.”

Condensing the amount of words in this passage is one way to quiet the scene. Minimizing sarcasm and melodrama is another. Using punctuation sparingly, such as with a single dash to provide a caesura, or a period at the end of a ruminative line, is a third way to lower the decibel of a passage. Subtext grows in the breath between the details. The more precise the writer’s choice of syntax and sound, the richer the silence for the reader. When sound and silence work in harmony on the page, fiction flows. And when fiction flows, it resonates with the reader.

What is Syntax and How Does It Regulate Sound?

As previously mentioned, syntax is the arrangement of words and punctuation to create rhythms and accentuation on the page. It enables words to connect in a sequence so that the whole of the sentence and its individual parts convey meaning, cadence, and tone. University of Southern California English Professor, Virginia Tufte, adds that successful syntax, “is a matter of controlled rhythm through spacing, grammatical pacing, endings, beginnings, widening, and narrowing of sentences.” Syntax is a tool of both functionality and style. Skilled writers calculate the syntax of every line because they understand that the rhythm of those lines must build to produce a tone reflective of their character’s spirit at that given moment. This is where sound comes in to the picture.

Syntax choreographs rhythm and rhythm is a pattern of sound that affects tone and mood. Thus, syntax regulates sound on the page. It choreographs “the noise words make and the rhythm of their relationships” states Ursula Le Guin. It also touches the reader’s emotions by shading meaning in the voice of the characters or the narration on the page, much in the same way a gesture, expression, or fluctuation in voice changes the shades of a conversation. There are three functional and stylistic components to syntax that work seamlessly together with sound to shape tone through every line on a page: length, punctuation, and arrangement.

Length Matters

Two sentence sizes matter in prose: long and short. When arranged in juxtaposition, they produce interesting rhythms on the page. Short, simple sentences create a choppy, blunt tone. Clumped together through the course of a scene, they elicit a sense of monotony, particularly when used in conjunction with one-syllable words. By contrast, long, complex sentences, full of embedded clauses must be carefully managed and solidly constructed so that they flow gracefully and carry readers along without knocking the wind out them. Ideally, short and long sentences will coalesce amicably on the same page. In this way, the sound of a word can be spotlighted in a short sentence, while a pattern of sound may shine in a long one.

Sixteen-year old Berry in Carolyn Coman’s Many Stones is tense with grief and rage for the sister she has lost and the father from whom she is estranged. Berry and her father embark on a two-week tour in South Africa, but Berry stubbornly resists his constant, well-meaning attempts at reconciliation. In the next passage, Berry takes slow, painfully jerky strides as she begins to crack open her nerve-frayed heart. Notice how Coman transfers the spotlight onto different words using both short and long phrases, italics, and punctuation marks. In the span of a paragraph, Coman shifts the tone of this passage from aggression to confession:

"I go back to how I started all this: 'I hate…' and it is still hanging in the air where I left it, and it comes back to me, fills me. 'This is all wrong,' I say. 'What we’re doing, and why we’re here, and how we’re pretending everything’s all right.' He watches me. I am not getting through, saying what it is. 'I,' I start. 'I don’t…I can’t stand…' Nothing I try to say gets finished. 'I hate words,' I say finally, 'for starters,' I add. I hate them for not helping me enough, not saying anything that is the same as how I feel inside."

Through syntax, Coman successfully portrays a teenager struggling to understand the notions of death and resolution. Small wonder the novel won a Printz Honor Award. Coman’s expert syntactical decisions help to shape authentic tones for her scenes, giving Berry a captivating voice.

Trade Marks

Punctuation provides a means by which the reader can make sense of patterns in language and subtleties in tone. Varied use or elimination of commas, periods, dashes, semicolons, parentheses, question marks, and exclamation points has a lasting effect on the reading experience. Punctuation can help to surround an instance of attention. Those brief pauses are the microscopic silences out of which the reader constructs meaning. Coman in Many Stones uses impetuous punctuation to mirror Berry’s volatile emotions:

"It’s what I love, though: how swimming can take me really, really far away. Doing laps can make me forget everything--or it’s not even forgetting, it’s like it never was, like nothing ever was. No anything, no me: the details of me, my body, whatever is in my head, my name--the whole story dissolves into the water. And I love it there--here--under water."

Coman’s punctuation choices make the reader hyper aware of Berry’s dangerously fragile emotional state that teeters on the brink of depression. Dashes mark sudden jerks in thought; commas hold together fragments of Berry’s self; colons give her permission to release. Berry’s subconscious yearning for understanding and finality in her sister’s death seeps out from the silent spaces in between punctuation marks.

Punctuation marks enable the writer to control the pace of her story and the weight of her words. They surround a moment of time, nudging the reader toward subtle patterns of sound, key details, and subtext. Punctuation, however, can spoil a scene like too much spice to the pot. When abused, it calls attention to itself, and as an effect, clouds the true tone of the scene.

Maximizing Real Estate

Arrangement speaks to the deliberate order of words and their punctuation in sentences as well as those sentences’ organization on the page. Balances and imbalances in syntactical arrangement should be calculated and contributing to the unique rhythms and patterns of a particular scene. While attention to arrangement seems more common for poetry, fiction can also manipulate word placement. “A break in rhythm is everything,” Mary Oliver explains in A Poetry Handbook. “Patterns are potent. Put one word on a line, it has become critical. All attention is drawn to it. Alter a line length or rhythm and you change the very physiological mood of the reader.”

Watch how Meg Rosoff in How I Live Now portrays Daisy’s revolting discovery of a massacre in an abandoned farm. The arrangement of sentences down the page mirrors Daisy’s shock. The scene moves in slow motion as she moves bodies aside in an attempt to locate her missing cousins:

"I could see that some of the bodies were human and then a kind of coldness came over me and no matter what I discovered I wasn’t going to scream or cry or anything. / I was ice. / The birds were pecking at a dead face in front of me, tugging at the skin and using their beaks to pull jagged purple strips of flesh free from the bone […] I knew from the size of the body and the clothes that it couldn’t be Edmond and if it couldn’t be Edmond it couldn’t be Isaac and it wasn’t Osbert either. / There were more bodies. / […] My legs started to shake against each other so hard that I had to squat down in the dirt to keep from falling over. / One by one. / One by one I approached the bodies, nice and methodical."

Conscious placement of words gives the writer the ability to restrain or advance the pace and tone of her work. Within syntax, Tufte explains, the left side of a sentence is generally composed of new thoughts while the right side is composed of cumulative thoughts, the “real news of a sentence.” That leaves the mid-branches, the clauses embedded within a sentence that can accelerate a reader’s anticipation to complete an interrupted idea. This is exactly what Rosoff intended to do with the mid-branch phrase, “tugging at the skin and using their beaks to pull jagged purple strips of flesh free from the bone.” The left side of the sentence, “The birds were pecking at a dead face in front of me,” piques the reader’s attention; the terrifying mid-branch accelerates the reader’s desire to find out who the face belongs to; the right portion of the sentence, the most important information, allays our fears: the face does not belong to one of Daisy’s cousins.

In addition to meticulous placement of clauses, Rosoff intentionally stops Daisy’s usual runaway narration cold in its tracks three times at the sight of the bodies, each instance earning its own line on the page. A frightening silence surrounds these single-line beats, and their arrangement draws the reader’s eye down the page. Rosoff has also positioned an important string of words within this passage that enhance its disturbing tone: “putrid and rotting”, “bodies”, “coldness”, “scream or cry”, “ice”, “jagged purple strips of flesh”, “more bodies”, “one by one”, “methodical.” Rosoff’s syntactical design decisions make this scene truly gruesome.

The significance of word and line arrangement cannot be overstated. Syntactical placement keeps sentences limber and lively. It maximizes the real estate on the page.

Re-visioning Story Through Sound and Syntax

The components of syntax and sound are inextricably intertwined. One cannot write a sentence without considering length, sound, punctuation, and placement all at once. Only by breaking these elements apart can a reader truly appreciate how they work seamlessly together on a page to produce an authentic tone that flows through an entire scene, and through an entire novel.

The importance of deliberate sound and syntax seems obvious, yet time and again these microelements of writing take a back seat to content. How often do writers really look at the individual sounds that comprise each letter in a word, or how the turning of a line affects the tone of the scene? Every mark on a blank page should reflect the end creation of countless authorial deliberations. Yet syntax and sound cannot work alone. Without worthy ideas and carefully controlled characters, linguistic facility is meaningless. Working in collaboration with the content on the page, syntax and sound help to sculpt the tone of each scene; they are the vehicles through which a writer inhabits voice.

* * *

For all that I have gleaned up to this point in my writing career, I have surely internalized more techniques than I can yet produce successfully on the page. Well, bring it on! By teaching myself how to control my writing, by practicing daily, and reading from the pros, I have begun to truly own the skills I’m developing. Consequently, I'm more confident in my ability to decipher what's working and what's not, and more patient with the time it takes me to churn out the good stuff.

I urge everyone to analyze others’ work as a jumping off point to exploring their own, from a single sentence to an entire scene. And when you revise, do as Francine Prose suggests in Reading Like a Writer: put every mark on the page, “on trial for its life.”


  1. I'm almost scared to post this comment without giving thought to each word, that comma there, what does it say? But I had to write that I'm simply in awe of you and your devotion to craft. A tad depressing (because of how far I have to go.) But ultimately inspiring. Thanks!

  2. Wow...same here, Martha! :) haha... Well, I am definitely compelled to write something because that post was wonderful (not exactly literary, I know, but it was wonderful). :) Definitely keep writing, and put every mark "on trial for its life". So many good quotes! :)

    Taylor J. Beisler

  3. Vanessa, thank you SO MUCH for this! I feel like I just peeked in on a class at Vermont College. Thanks for sharing some of what you've learned! I'm about to revise my middle grade w-i-p and am going to keep all these points in mind as I tackle each scene and chapter.



  4. You had me remembering why I write again, feeling it all wash over and through me. Thank you for this post.

  5. Wow, this is a post to return to again and again. Lots of wonderful nuggets here. Thank you!

  6. Wow -- you guys are all an inspiration just for reading through my whole darn posting! Thanks for the nods of appreciation and I'm so pleased the info was helpful for you. Blog on, and happy writing!

  7. Thank you for that wonderful post, simulatneously inspiring and daunting!

  8. Mrs. Meyer wrote for her audience, which is why she is so successful, as does James Patterson and John Grisham. Everyday readers are not interested in any of this; you're correct, of course, and I applaud the information, but today's (and tomorrow's) market isn't going to be interested in buying exact but boring.

  9. Really great essay. I enjoyed reading it. Makes me wanna go to Vermont College too!