Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose. Three Rivers Press; Revised, Updated edition, 2013. ISBN: 94.
I also thought it important to know the credentials held by someone promising so much for one volume in the already crowded field of books on the craft of writing. Constance Hale is an author of stories appearing in newspapers from theLos Angeles Timesto theMiami Herald, as well as in magazines such asThe Atlantic,National Geographic Adventure, andSmithsonianand has been published in anthologies includingFrance, A Love Story(Seal Press) andBest Travel Writing 2006(Travelers Tales). She is also a founder of The Prose Doctors (an editors collective) and today edits for Harvard Business Press and works at the San Francisco Writers Grotto. She should know a thing or three about writing prose that sells.
That settled, I dove intoSin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose.
People often think that this is just a grammar book, but its really about putting it all together words, phrasing, rhythm, imagery and arriving at a distinctive voice and style. Constance Hale
Turns outSin and Syntaxisnt just a book on grammar. Oh, the grammar is there on the theory you have to know the rules before you can bend or break them, but Hales point throughoutSin and Syntaxis that prose (flesh) gets its shape and strength from the bones of grammar and I think its an apt metaphor for the reason for those stuffy and sometimes pompous grammar rules: to bring clarity to spoken and written communication. Once we accept that grammar is more about making the underlying structure of our writing clear, precise, and interesting and less about correctness, the fear of the rules falls away and were better able to make them work for us.
Many of the books on the craft of writing of which there are far too many and at last count I own thirty-seven of them by various authors range from reasonably good to quite good at the what to do and why to do it yet leave many an inexperienced or not well-read writer to wail, But how do I do it? I thought ifSin and Syntaxcould show writers how to bring grammar and language together to craft prose that excites, on how to fine-tune our prose to bring life and movement to our writing it would have lived up to its promise. The book does that far better than most books on writing in the depth of attention it pays to each passage provided for examination. Hale highlights and breaks down extensive passages of stellar and engaging writing and speaking from Shakespeare to Joan Didion to Cormac McCarthy to Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and explains in detail how the author or speakers intended effect was achieved from carefully chosen nouns and the words surrounding them to the rhythms and lyricism (musicality) the authors instilled through their sentence structures. Yet, she maintains a relaxed and conversational tone and lets her witty style shine through and this makes the book an easy and enjoyable cover-to-cover read.
The three-part structure Constance Hale chose forSin and Syntaxis simple and progresses smoothly from the basic to the sophisticated through Words, Sentences, and Music, making the book accessible as a reference or refresher for the parts of grammar each of us finds trickiest.
Part I: Words covers the eight parts of speech, each with its own chapter: Nouns, Pronouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Adverbs, Prepositions, Conjunctions, and Interjections. (Have you ever been told you use too many adjectives or that your descriptions are too wordy or boring? You might want to look at your nouns. Or, that your verbs are weak or that your adverbs are redundant? Yep, thats covered here, too, with examples that bring it home.)
Part II: Sentences addresses how these parts of speech are brought together to begin to form the bones of communication, again each with its own chapter: the Subject, the Predicate, Simple Sentences, Phrases and Clauses, and Length and Tone.
Part III: Music. The four chapters in this section delve into the ways we, too, can find our own unique voices and grow our own individual styles. These chapters are devoted to Melody, Rhythm, Lyricism, and Voice.
Does it surprise you to see music included in a book on writing prose? It shouldnt; it is in the beauty, rhythm, and lyricism of the English language that we find the emotion and the ability to make the connections to other humans we strive for in our prose.
Each chapter in each of the three parts includes five sections:
Fleshshows us how to bring life to our prose through specific word and phrase choices while playing with sentence structure to enhance those choices.
Cardinal Sinsdebunks grammar myths such as admonitions against split infinitives just make sure you have a good reason for splitting that infinitive and can pull it off with panache and ending sentences with prepositions (of course, we can). The cardinal sins sections also give examples of convoluted, stilted, and stylistically terrible sentences to be avoided, many of which we learned in school and business and technical writing and find so difficult to unlearn.
Carnal Pleasures Ah, you were wondering where the sin in the books title comes in, werent you? shows us how to break grammar rules knowingly and effectively to inject power and energy into our writing and grow our authorial voices as well as create unique voices for our characters and the voice of each story and story world.
Catechismsections conclude each chapter with quirky exercises to help us with such things as the exploration of the sounds of the words we choose in our writing, the sounds we hear in the world around us every day so that we can reproduce them for effect in our writing, and the metaphors we either create or employ in unexpected ways.
Great writers understand the richness of the English lexicon, and they take time to choose their words carefully, especially when revising. Sin and Syntax
The English lexicon is indeed rich in history, in variety, and in nuance and its that better understanding of nuance which can elevate prose to the memorable, the precise, the profound, and the beautiful. If I have a quibble aboutSin and Syntax, its that it does not address more thoroughly the importance of creating nuance along with the necessary precision in word choice.
Right here is probably a good place to mention Hales five new principles of prose which she revisits throughoutSin and Syntax:
It wouldnt be a bad idea to tape those principles just above your keyboard or writing station as a reminder of what youre seeking to accomplish in each writing session. I did.
So doesSin and Syntaxlive up to the promises made that the information contained within will help us write wicked good prose? Overall, I think it does and I recommendSin and Syntaxas an addition to every writers bookshelf.
See Contance Hales WebsiteSin and SyntaxAn online salon for those who love wicked good prose. Ari Meermans has been a teacher, technical writer, and Software/IT project manager. She is a language and writing enthusiast and chocolate fiend. When her nose isnt buried in a book, she can be found at Absolute Write.
Whats your elevator pitch for Kinglet? (Or for the Gemeta Stone books as a set)?
A gentle young prince must recover his courage and his familys legendary talisman to free his kingdom from a powerful magician.
Man, that seems so . . . bald. The overarching theme is about how Kristan Gemeta has to learn to balance his compassionate nature against the sometimes terrible things he has to do to achieve his goal. Its about his external conflict with the bad guy, yes but his internal conflict is just as vital to the story.
Did you have a playlist forKinglet(Or for the entire Gemeta Stone sequence)?
I had a playlist for the first couple of books in the series that was heavily Celtic, but as the series progressed that playlist has spread into other genres: a lot of world and ambient music, or more recently, no music at all. I find I can delve into the story without needing a score now.
Were there any surprises for you as you wroteKinglet? Character developments or plot twists that you didnt expect?
The character of Heather Demitt was the biggest surprise. I conceived her as the love interest for the main character, but she was so interesting that she developed into a co-MC. Shes the yin to Kristans yang: impulsive, outgoing and hopeful, compared to his more introspective and less self-assured character.
I was also a bit taken aback at how dark the story got. At its heart its still a story of hope, but the ordeals the characters, especially Kristan, have to endure . . . well, my mother, upon reading the third book, said Isnt this poor guy ever going to catch a break? (The answer was yes, but it takes a while.)
Kingletis the first book in the five-bookGemeta Stoneseries. Did you start out intending to write a series?
Well, I certainly didnt think it was going extend through five books (plus a prequel)! I thought Id have a trilogy, maybe.
You originally sold the rights forThe Gemeta Stonebooks to a small publisher, and youve recently regained your rights and are republishing as your own publisher. What advice can you offer other authors who have decided to self-publish after regaining their rights?
Im still learning the self-publishing game myself, so Im really not in a position to advise others but the one thing Ive learned is that you have to be patient. It takes time to gain traction, and without the marketing and promotional advantages a good trade publisher can provided (and I emphasize the word good), the onus is on you and you alone to get the word out there about your books. Do what you can to promote, but remember that your primary job is to write.
Im slow and meticulous. If I produce a thousand words a day, thats big progress for me, but the result is closer to a second or third draft than a first draft. Ive never been able to just spew words onto the page and say Ill fix it later. The spelling, punctuation, grammar and construction all have to be correct, and the paragraph as polished as I can make it, before I can move on. If I get bogged down, Ill write out of sequence. And I always try to make myself stop for the day when I want to keep going that way Im eager to begin again the next day.
Whats your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?
I prefer to write at my desk, on a full-sized computer, but I also have a tablet that Ill carry with me to rehearsals or keep backstage during performances so I can write during my downtime.
Youre alsoan accomplished professional actor; how do you see your two careers influencing each other?
Theyre both about telling a story, arent they? About motivating a characters actions; about finding the truth in what they say and do. As a result of my stage work, I think Ive developed both a good sense of pacing and an ear for dialogue, and as a writer, Im able to flesh out a characters backstory and give it some extra veracity.
From the popularFoxy Visitorsthread on Absolute Write, I know you set up some trail cams and have gotten some wonderful shots and video of foxes. How did that start?
I had been in NYC for almost all of 2017, understudying Patti LuPone on Broadway in the musical WAR PAINT. When the show closed in November I was exhausted from the whole experience, frustrated with my then-publisher and burned out on my writing. I went home and spent a lot of time looking out my deck window, usually at the birds visiting my feeders, but then I noticed foxes visiting the yard, fairly regularly. In years prior Id see them occasionally just a glimpse now and then but this time I had a trio of regulars. I think they were attracted by the gray squirrels, who were in turn attracted by the bird feeders. One of the foxes was infected with a terrible case ofsarcoptic mange. She was so pitiful basically denuded of fur from the ribcage down that I wanted to help. I started researching, figured out what medicine to provide and how to deliver it, and in the end was able to get poor little Wisp through the winter. She ended up having a pair of kits in the spring, and so I had more foxes to watch. My husband gifted me with a pair of trail cameras, so Im better able to tell them apart, not just by their appearances but by their individual quirks of behavior.
What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?
Robert McFarlanesThe Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, which is a series of essays on exploring old footpaths in the UK and Europe. It sounds like a pretty dry topic, but it was actually fascinating, and McFarlanes prose is both evocative and lyrical. Gorgeous book. Ive also read and enjoyedThe Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wildby Lyanda Lynn Haupt andBird Sense: What Its Like to Be a Birdby Tim Birkhead. I read both of them because of my interest in wildlife, but the latter especially because I have a shape-shifter character whos introduced in the third book of my series, and I wanted a little more grist for that particular characters mill.
Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?
I found Stephen KingsOn Writingand Ursula K. Le GuinsSteering the Craftto be particularly helpful.
Is there a question that youve never been asked that youd really like to answer?
Not so much a question, but Ive always wanted to go in-depth about my experience with my publisher more as a cautionary tale than anything else. But that would take way more time (and room!) than we have here. I may eventually do a blog series about it.
In lieu of opening nights gifts for my shows, I usually make a donation in the companys name to a classroom project . When I was doing a production ofThe Music ManI donated to an Iowa schools music department so they could buy band supplies; when I was doing a world premiere musical in which a guitar was destroyed onstage every night, I donated to a local classroom wanting ukuleles so their students could learn to play.
Whats your current projected schedule for publishing the books that follow Kinglet inThe Gemeta Stonesequence? (I really enjoyedKingletand am looking forward to the rest of the story).
I am guesstimating that Book 2 in the series,Fiskur, will be re-released in mid-June. Im hoping to get the other two books out before the fall, and then publish the prequel soon after that. And Im praying to have the first draft of the fifth and final book finished by October!
You can findDonna Migliaccio on Twitter, and atDonna Migliaccios Website, as well as on AW as mrsmig.Kingletis currently available on Amazon.
Fergus Ferguson is an interstellar repo man who has gone off to a backwater, deep space settlement to find and take back a stolen spaceship, and gets caught up in the middle of an escalating feud between a crooked junk merchant and a family of lichen farmers. Plus: mysterious marauding aliens!
I need very different music when Im working on a first draft versus while revising, and the first draft ofFinderfeels like ages ago now and I cant remember what I was listening to back then, but certainly something high-energy like Florence & The Machine, Snow Patrol, etc. My go-to music in revision is usually Bonobo, along with Euphoria, Thievery Corporation, and other fairly mellow, largely instrumental music.
Were there any surprises for you as you wroteFinder? Character developments or plot twists that you didnt expect?
Hahaha, the whole thing? But seriously, I am not much of a planner, and when I start a new project I usually only have a few tiny seeds of what I want a character, or a setting, or a small scene and I just throw it down on the page and see where it goes. I can usually tell within a few paragraphs from how the story language wants to pace itself, and from how quickly more idea bits are accumulating onto the growing mass how big its going to be, and withFinderI thought early on I was heading into novella territory, but I was nervous about letting it go longer. In the end, the story insisted, so I went along with it.
First drafts are an absolute chaotic mess, with a lot of back and forth and dead-end alleys I need to back out of and find a better path forward, and I often have only a vague idea where Im going until I get there. The joy of discovery, of finding that you left yourself perfect breadcrumbs without even realizing it, is for me not only one of my favorite parts of the experience, but a necessary part of it. If I know too much about the story I get bored trying to write it.
Once I get to the actual end, and I have the big picture of what the story is and I start to revise, if its a longer piece Ill usually build an outline retroactively as I work my way through, which then gives me a handy roadmap for a lot of the fiddly but critical work making the whole thing come together.
Whats your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?
I do almost all my writing at home, in a small home office where my chair looks out over the woods in the back yard. Ive seen moose, barred owls, coyotes, and a lot of wild turkeys out there, though Im perfectly happy with just the clouds and trees. Inside, my writing buddies are a pair of lovebirds named Beetle and Boo, who are noisy as hell but adorable. I do my writing on a Mac, using MS Word, because despite its occasionally aggravating flaws its just easier for me. (I write very linearly, so more complex tools which are often wonderful for other writers dont do much for me.) I will also often leave myself notes or doodle elements from whatever Im working on, be it aliens or ships or maps of where things are, so there tends to be bits of paper everywhere and up on the bulletin board behind my monitor. I dont write much longhand because my handwriting is horrible and gets exponentially worse the more Im trying to write at once.
Back in 2012 your story Mandrakes Folly was published in Absolute WritesAbsolute Visionsanthology. I really loved the characters and world building. Any plans to return to any of it?
Actually, a lot (although not all) of my science fiction is set in the same contiguous universe, and there are characters and/or places that drift through multiple stories. Mandrakes Folly has several connections of that sort with other stories, although the closest tie is to Surf, which was my first sale toAsimovs(also in 2011) and which has a character in common, although theres a time gap between them.
I think about it a lot like the pointillist paintings of Seurat, one dot of color at a time, except probably I work in a much more ADHD way than Seurat did. As a viewer/reader, the dots maybe dont connect yet in apparent ways, but *I* know that, dammit, those two dots are part of a tree and that dot is a monkey, and that informs where the next dot goes.
One of the things I loved the most about Finder was the world-building. Its very clear that you know a lot more about the peoples and places youre writing about. How are you keeping track of all you know about your universe?
I have a wiki! Seriously, as soon as I had written enough stuff with shared universe elements that I found myself having to dig through old manuscripts to remember how I described something or when something happened or where, I decided it was easier to just start keeping details in my own personal wiki. Its not a perfect solution because Im not always sure what *is* an important detail except in hindsight, or how in the long term I want things to connect, and sometimes Im lazy about keeping it updated, but I do eventually manage to keep up. I also have a lot of sketches and maps, some scanned in, some in notebooks, that I can go back to when needed.Do you have plans to write more about Mattie Mother Vahn and the Vahn clan?I would love to revisit Mattie Vahn some day, and Im open to the idea, but so far the right story for her hasnt come my way. There are other Vahns we will certainly see again. Ive got about half a short story set in the Sunshields, because I fell in love with the Shielders and wanted to spend a little more time with them on their own terms, and hopefully Ill have that finished this spring. I think for me one of the ways I know a character is working is when they start demanding their own stories, and there were quite a few secondary and minor characters inFinderthat are still trying to get my attention too many to get to, and their numbers keep going up, but Id never say never on any of them.
I know that you built an incredible book alley. Would you tell us a little about that?
The Book Alley! I have, unsurprisingly, way too many books, and I made the mistake of buying a house where the entire downstairs is an open floorplan filled with windows great for sunlight and looking out at the gardens in the summer, but absolutely miserable for trying to put bookshelves in. So I built the Book Alley, a 10 wide room the length of the back of the house, and for the first time in my life all my books and magazines are shelved and out and there whenever I want to curl up in a comfy chair and read. Which I dont do nearly often enough, but Im trying.
What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?
It is a truly sad thing that writing comes directly out of my reading time, so Im always behind the curve on whats new, especially novel-length stuff. But last year I found and totally fell for Martha WellssMurderbotseries, which I just cant recommend highly enough. Right now Im reading Charlie Jane AnderssThe City in the Middle of the Night, which is brilliant so far.
Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?
This may seem an odd choice, but Scott McCloudsUnderstanding Comics. While its ostensibly focused on visual, sequential narrative, there is so much information in there about storytelling and pacing and engaging with your material that its a phenomenal resource for almost any kind of creative pursuit, and certainly looking at comics through that lens has impacted how I approach and engage with many other kinds of narrative as well.
Youre aViable Paradisegraduate (VP IX 2005). What advice do you have for prospective VP students?
When I attended VP, I was in a place where I wasnt sure if I was serious about writing, or more importantly, if I was brave enough to be serious about it. Imposter Syndrome has always been a steady (and super-clingy) companion, and I think I spent too much of the first few days of the workshop feeling like I couldnt possibly belong there. And thats the thing about VP if youre there, its because they believe you belong there, and then its up to you to make sure you dont get in your own way taking full advantage of what the experience has to offer. Even with my own hangups going in, it was a life-changing experience for me, and I wish Id been more centered in it from the start. So leave the insecurity (or overconfidence!) behind, plenty of time for those later (-:
I support my local animal shelter, because theyre really good people, and my local library which is teeny-tiny and trying to raise funds to expand. I also donate regularly toMdecins Sans Frontires, aka Doctors Without Borders, because I cant imagine more difficult or more vital work.
Is there a question that youve never been asked that youd really like to answer?
Why zanzjan ? (My nickname almost everywhere.) The very first thing I wrote, as an adult, was a novel that was set on a planet named Zanzjan Minor. Although that novel never quite made it, it was the central hub of much of my subsequent story world, and it has showed up in small ways and in the background of a bunch of stories. Going back to my Seurat analogy earlier, theres a blank space in the cluster of dots of my worldbuilding where that novel originally fit. Someday possibly when Im done with Fergus Ferguson Im going to take apart that old manuscript, steal back the important bits and elements, and build a whole new novel to fit in that space.
Having read Finder, I can tell you it is a funny, bodacious space opera with quality world building and characters. Palmer has just turned in the sequel, and I cant wait to read it.
Suzanne Palmer has aWebsite, and is active onTwitterandFacebook. You can find her debut SF novel Finder at your local independent bookstore, buy it Amazon CanadaAmazon UKBarnes & Noble iBooksKindleKobo Powells.
This post contains Absolute Write affiliate links.
Then, outside of Steins hearing, Kazan conferred with Steins improvisation partner, Rona Jaffe, author of the bestselling novelThe Best of Everything, who was to play the mother. Kazan told Jaffe that her son was a bright and well-behaved boy, that he had been persecuted by his teachers, and that she must insist that the headmaster must take him back to the school immediately.
Two participants in the scene, two radically varying interpretations of the world. How could a setup like this yield anything but fireworks?
Steins point in recounting this episode is that you can create conflict by giving your characters opposing desires, opposing goalsbut why not go even further? Why not place their entire worldviews in opposition, their entire notion of truth? Steins headmaster is certain that the boy is a rotten apple beyond correction. Jaffe, as the boys mother, takes it for granted that her son can do no wrong. Not only are the characters desires at loggerheads; so are the fundamental facts through which they interpret everything they see and hear.
This passage, like many others inStein on Writing, had me itching to rush back to my manuscript and start fixing things. Stein had given me a clear new lens through which to examine any scene that flagged, any dialogue that didnt crackle as it should. After reading the passage I was ready to examine every scene in my novel and ask myself, what facts does each character take as given that the other does not know or not believe to be true? The potential is thrilling.
Sol Stein knows a few things about making fiction and nonfiction ready for publication. A bestselling author himself, he also edited bestsellers by others, including Kazan and James Baldwin. InStein on Writing, first published in 1995, he indulges in some name dropping, recounting his experiences learning from and teaching writers like these. But the book is not a memoir, nor even a memoir-advice hybrid. It is, as Stein frames it, a book of usable solutions. Stein aims to teach you how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place. He states up front that the goal of his book is to help writers create writing that is suitable for publication. The famous names are his rsum.
In chapters covering everything from strong characterization, to developing tension, suspense, conflict, and plot, to trimming the flab from your writing, to tackling the revision of a novel-length manuscript, Stein provides a toolbox of techniques that, like the lesson from his improv session with Kazan and Jaffe, take familiar writing advice and carry it further, providing a new angle from which to interrogate your own writing.
For a writer like me, Steins formulations are fresh and intriguing. I am something of an advanced beginner at fiction. Professionally, I have written everything from legal briefs to technical documentation, and I am an experienced writer of critical essays. In fiction, though, I am just finding my legs, laboring through my first novel and publishing a short story or two in the meantime. If you have thought about craft a great deal already, you might findStein on Writingsolid and helpful, if not revelatory. For me, much of it is downright inspiring. The advice is accessible and actionable, with something in nearly every chapter that makes me think, Yes, I can do that! It leaves me charged to go press Steins techniques into service on the page.
Stein emphasizes that much of his guidance applies with equal force to both writers of fiction and writers of nonfiction, and he invites each to eavesdrop on the sections directed at the other. Most crucial to Stein is that, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, the writer never lose her bead on the foremost purpose of writing: To provide the reader with an experience that is superior to the experiences the reader encounters in everyday life. Other common goals of writersto express oneself, to be adored by fans, to make moneymight be achievable side effects, Stein says, but the primary intention must be to create enjoyment for readers:
Sex has to be good for both partners. That is also the key to writing both fiction and nonfiction. It has to be a good experience for both partners, the writer and the reader. And it is a source of distress to me to observe how frequently writers ignore the pleasure of their partners.
Most of the book aims to guide writers through the work of creating that pleasurable experience for the reader. A recurring theme in the book is something Stein calls particularity, and it is one of the concepts that drives me back to my manuscript busting out with ideas for improving my characterization and description. Particularity is Steins refinement on the notion that detail is the life blood of fiction, his way of shining new light on that common bit of writing wisdom. Stein notes that it is not merely detail that distinguishes good writing, but detail that is carefully selected to individualize. What he calls particularity is the detail that differentiates one person from another