Sentence by Sentence

Sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) I like to imagine that my life is a musical. I sing about mundane things like doing the dishes or rubbing my dog’s belly, and I create little dance numbers—often pale imitations of Fosse with jazz hands and the occasional high kick. My husband finds it very amusing. I don’t know what my dog Ralphie thinks about it. These days I keep coming back to a new song not about Ralphie or the dishes, but about my writing process. It came to me one afternoon during a break from the slow revisions of my second draft of Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven. As I stood in the kitchen waiting for a cup of tea to brew, I started belting out something that went a little like this: “Sentence by sentence it gets better! Sentence by sentence I achieve my dreams. Sentence by sentence, word by word, it takes shape!” I admit that I am no Stephen Sondheim, but the song has stuck with me. I picture it as a company number that starts small—one person begins quietly—Sentence by sentence—another joins—Word by word—then another, and another until the whole stage is full. There’s also a big dance number. Maybe just before intermission—sending the audience humming to the restrooms and bar. Or maybe it could be a showstopper—sending the audience straight to their feet with a roar. But mostly it captures, for me, exactly what I was in the midst of doing: the laborious (some might call it tedious) work of revision—crafting each sentence so that it expresses as accurately as possible what the story means.

This sentence-by-sentence stage is actually my favorite part of the writing process. I often find writing the early drafts nerve-wracking. While Emily’s stories seem to run through her like trains and she just has to type fast enough to keep up, mine require a lot of coaxing out of their hiding places in my mind. I spend a lot of time freewriting in the early stages of drafting, wondering what the hell happens next or how do I get from London back to Hertfordshire without a carriage, money, or time? Freewriting (writing without thinking, just letting my fingers fly across the keyboard) works really well sometimes, which is the point of the exercise. I write my way to solutions to any number of problems, and I discover things I didn’t know. Sometimes, however, it fails me and I have to find another way to the solution—like taking a walk. Occasionally I experience what I imagine to be Emily’s writing process—that is, sometimes I get a sudden inspiration, and my fingers just have to keep up with my brain. I find that almost as nerve-wracking as coaxing the story out because I don’t type as quickly as my brain works. So I’m worried the whole time that I won’t catch that fleeting thought. At any rate, eventually I manage to get the first draft of the story out of my brain and into my computer in some kind of loose approximation of what it might be, but at least by then I know what the story is.

Then comes the next draft—making some sense of what is there. It varies from story to story. With Mary Bennet, I wrote the first draft and then put it away for six months. When I re-read it I almost abandoned it. I was pretty disheartened because it was, well, boring. I actually fell asleep a few times while reading it. Yes, that bad. So writing the second draft involved turning it into something that didn’t make me cringe. (I know this is a normal and natural reaction to one’s writing. It still sucks.) I worked chapter-by-chapter to turn the first, boring draft into something that I liked a lot better. I was pleased that it worked.

And that I could finally get to the good part, the part that makes up for the earlier anxiety. The sentence-by-sentence and word-by-word part. I love this stage for a few reasons. The first is that I love that I have time. I can spend a day on three pages and still feel as though I did some great work. I’m not really sure why, but when I’m in the earliest drafting phase, I feel as though I should produce a lot of words per day. It’s not really true, but I feel that way. I also face an old fear whenever I sit down to write a new story or book—that old fear many of us share: what if I don’t have anything to say? What if I’ve run out of stories? But once I’ve gotten past that stage and produced proof that I do still have something to say, I can relax and play with the words and with the sentence structure. And with the order of events. And with…

When I was revising my dissertation back in my graduate student days, I once spent an entire day on one sentence. It was an important sentence—it was the transition between two key ideas in a chapter on masculinity and Shakespeare film. I think it was about Hamlet and possibly something to do with Lacan. That was nearly ten years ago, so I can’t really remember. But I do remember that it was a great day. I played with that one sentence for hours. I kept a pad of paper next to my yoga mat while I did my practice. I jotted ideas while stopped at a light on my way to the happy store (what I used to call Starbucks before I stopped drinking so much coffee). I paused the Tivo in the evening while I was watching Buffy in order to try out yet another version of the sentence. And then I went to bed happy because I finally got it.

In the end it’s the craft of writing that I love so much. The early phases are okay because they give me something to craft later and because I’m often surprised by what comes out in those early stages—characters behave in ways I would never have imagined before I put my hands to my keyboard and wrote. But even those lovely moments of surprise don’t quite measure up to the painstaking detail work that I believe turns a good story into a great one.

And now: the orchestra strikes up a catchy tune. A lone actor sitting in front of a computer stretches, looks up and sings “Sentence by sentence…” Then a spotlight comes up on another actor who sings “Word by word.” Two more spotlights, two more actors, “Sentence by sentence!”

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