learning more about “steering” the writing craft

In her book on writing, Steering The Craft, Ursula Le Guin says:

The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence. Beyond this basic, invisible job, the narrative sentence can do an infinite number of beautiful, surprising, powerful, audible, visible things. But the basic function of the narrative sentence is to keep the story going and keep the reader going with it.

If you aren’t interested in the craft of writing, then today’s post will definitely leave you disappointed. As for me, there’s no longer any pressure to publish after I decided I should only write for myself because I like doing it (most of the time). It’s become a fun but  sometimes challenging hobby and I’d like to think I’m in the driver’s seat and steering the best I can. I’ve just come from a meeting with my some of my writing friends who enjoy working together, though I must admit sometimes it feels more like an afternoon party since we have too much fun to call what we’re doing “work.” Once again I’m all revved up with new vigor to keep on trying sharpen my own writing skills.

The advantage of assigned writing exercises, which our group decided to do using Ms. Le Guin’s book, is that I’m constantly being challenged to try different writing techniques that I probably would never have tried on my own. I confess that for some of them, I groaned inwardly–at first. My thinking was that it would be too easy, or I’d already tried something like that. But each time I’d buckle down whether I thought I’d like it or not. Some of the work it produced turned out better than others. But I always learned something. Overall, I’m left feeling pretty psyched. Especially when/if I get a positive reaction from others in the group when I read. It’s also interesting to see the many different approaches there are within the group using with the same instructions.

Today’s exercise, in two parts, was coined the SHORT and LONG of it. It involved writing a paragraph or narrative of ~100-150 words in sentences limited to seven words–no sentence fragments–each with a subject and verb. Here’s a paragraph I constructed from a longer story I wrote long ago. To set it up, you should know the protagonist is J.J. McMahon, a 50-something grandmother who’s car-napped in her Honda (named Fenry) waiting at a traffic light. She’s just dropped her grandson off at nursery school and is sitting there contemplating how she really ought to have gone to the bathroom at the school, while there are valid reasons why she didn’t, and she’s praying she can make it in time to the bathroom in her office in.

I’m in the restroom at last! Relief is just a button and zipper away. Thank God for McDonald’s on Kingston Pike. But I am I shaking so. Not a single other person here today. I decide I’ll write on the mirror. Please help me! I’ve been kidnapped! My kidnapper’s that teenager with angel eyes. I poke around my purse for a lipstick. Nothing that marks is in my purse. I hear a voice through the door. “Are you all right, Mother?” It’s him! I can’t believe it. Disconcerted, my body stiffens and shifts. The toilet flushes. Damn those automatic flushers anyway! What nerve this kid has. Does he really have a gun? He’s invading the women’s room  after me! I hear him explaining. “She wasn’t feeling well. I was worried.” The woman behind him smiles. I know what she’s thinking. “What a wonderful son.” No, oh no, my mind screams. He’s NOT my son, he’s my kidnapper!” Too soon we’re back on Kingston Pike. I grip Fenry’s steering wheel tightly. I-40 is so close. “So where are we going,” I ask. “Do I keep driving?” “East,” he says. Take I-40, then north on 75.

In Part two, we were to presented a half-page to a page of narrative, up to ~350 words, all written in one sentence. I hoped this narrative serves sufficiently–as Flash Fiction perhaps–so as not to need no set-up for the reader to interpret or understand the plot.

They tricked her into going to the funeral so it’s no wonder the first thing she notices is the tiny rip in the netting draped over Meemaw’s face in the coffin and I am reminded how we always planned to go back fishing for minnows one day, and all of a sudden I feel my stomach pitch; my heart swells up like it will bust out of my body when the McFadden sisters who sing at all the funerals around here stand around the pulpit in their hats and high heels to sing sadly about gathering at the river where angels’ feet have trod, all while Reverend Martin’s weepy voice rises to a deafening pitch in order to be heard over the singing and the drone of the electric fan and the muffled sounds of sobbing, and I’m trying so hard not to cry myself that I’m not sure if I actually saw but I’m pretty sure I did see a soft fluttering of Meemaw’s pale eyelids and then her blinking like she has just spent a long night in somebody else’s bed and can’t at first recognize where she is, that I almost miss the miracle him–the preacher–and all the brethren have talked about so many times before at so many other funerals: verily I say unto you, the hour is coming…and now is…when he that heareth my word and believeth in Him that sent me…have everlasting life…and shall not come into condemnation…but is passed from death into life,” and just like that, and that quick, Meemaw rises, turns to look right at me and it’s like nobody else can see or hear her but me, but I hear as plain as day, “come on baby Junebug, while these people sit here crying and blubbering, let’s you and me go fishing for minnows, and in a flash she’s gone and quick as lightning I run and grab the white netting that separated her from me and then I follow her out of the side door of the dark church as quick as I can into the waiting sunshine.

For critiquing, and I’m inviting any reader to do so if so inclined, it is important–to me–that the short or long sentences fit the story being told. That’s the criteria of assignments like these. In spite of breaking all the rules of grammar, does it still work? Do the short sentences in Part one read naturally? Would it hold a reader’s attention? Is the language of the longer piece (Part two) clear enough so the reader doesn’t get lost or have to go back and start over for clarification.

If you like to write, either seriously or as a hobby like me, and you also author a blog, I hope you’ll let me know, or better yet, give me a link and I’ll try to come ’round to see what you’ve done.

7 thoughts on “learning more about “steering” the writing craft

  1. I’m remiss in not knowing that you have been taking these writing classes (and btw happy belated birthday – Taurus (shoulda known) – it’s been a while since I’ve written fiction and when I did I always needed so much space in my mind to do it. Right now the thought of having to write some of the passages you have written terrifies me! Keep plugging though – it’s a craft that requires lots of practice (and patience).

    • Unfortunately I forgot to update to say that after the second class I transferred out of the writing class to a science class instead. The writing class seemed aimed at too broad a base of writers, and seemed rather redundant. Hubby was raving so about his science class, covering such diversant subjects from ants to discoveries from the latest medical research, I decided to see if there was a vacant seat left. Everything worked out rather well, and I truly learned some amazing things. Yep! I’m a Taurus, stubborn like a mule as Hubby might say. :wink:

      On Tue, May 14, 2013 at 8:31 PM, My Wintersong

  2. I am of the opinion that both exercises worked exceedingly well; I enjoyed them both and in neither case was it necessary to go back, clarify…in fact, just the opposite. The ride with the car-napper has a lively, forward pacing, with angst and frenzy and frustration that I could viscerally feel. The second piece is clever, well-written, wonderful. Thank you for sharing the exercise ideas.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Monica! Feedback does help, especially when it comes from people who don’t know you personally, and who are committed writers–and observers–as you. I really appreciate it.

  3. Well, Alice, I am no expert and the last person to go critiquing other peoples work. I enjoyed both pieces and that is enough for me. If I were to worry about GSP, I’d never put a word on paper, read: screen.

    • G’mar, it isn’t the “expert” opinion I’m looking for, just that of potential readers. If they fail to understand what’s going on then I have to question the clarity of my writing. I’m happy if you enjoyed it, however, and thank you for commenting. Btw, I’m afraid you’ve got me on GSP. I never was good at either acronyms nor initial isms. :razz:

      On Thu, May 16, 2013 at 1:51 PM, My Wintersong

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