Learning from Katherine Heiny

“The very next day, a woman ahead of Graham in line at the deli order a Reuben sandwich with French dressing instead of Russian, and Graham recalled that his ex-wife had often order that very sandwich, and then he realized the woman was his ex-wife.”

from Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

Here are some thoughts about this graceful sentence.

  • The surprise in this sentence is a result of its shape, its structure. The information it presents is ordered so that readers move from “a woman ahead of Graham” and the details of a sandwich, to the memory of a woman, to the actual woman in the character’s present moment. In other words, readers move from trigger, to memory, to instance/event.
  • The process of recalling a memory takes place within the process of ordering a meal. The character’s mundane becomes a source of possible drama and his reaction to this event characterizes. Graham, in the sentences that follow this one, vacillates between inviting his ex-wife to eat with him and avoiding her by slipping away.
  • The italics provide an emphasis that perhaps characterizes but also gives readers an additional clue that while we’re within Graham’s consciousness his ex-wife is also present before him and us.

Consider building a sentence using a similar structure, one that moves from trigger to memory to surprising presence.

Learning from Chekhov

“Winter, evil, dark, long, had ended so recently; spring had arrived suddenly; but neither the warmth nor the languid, transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black flock flying in the fields over huge puddles that were like lakes, nor this marvelous, immeasurably deep sky, into which it seemed that one would plunge with such joy, offered anything new and interesting to Maria Vasuilyevna, who was sitting in the cart.”

“The Cart” by Anton Chekhov

I really like this sentence.

  • The sentence gives readers a landscape and a character and her mindset.
  • The semi-colons set the stage. They control broad establishing temporal shots, letting readers know about the time of year without allowing that information to be presented in a static way. We know what winters are like in this world Chekhov is building and we know how this spring has arrived. But the seasons are presented abstractly at first
  • For most of the rest of the sentence, a world is presented in images. Those images are built from actual, specific objects (woods, flock, fields, puddles, sky), sensory language (warmth and black, most obviously), and some metaphors.
  • The sentence is also structured to present a mystery. The phrase “but neither the” leads readers into the rest of the sentence wondering what the elements implied by it will be. The mystery begins to be answered with a character’s reaction to the world. The images didn’t offer “anything new and interesting to Maria.” We read on, at least partly, to see why and how there could be nothing new or interesting for her here. Chekhov presents a place that is likely to interest readers and then lets them know this character is not interested in it.
  • “Joy” appears in the sentence to create engaging contrast with the character’s state of mind.
  • Anti-climax is used strategically as the sentence ends with “sitting in the cart.” At the same time, it almost immediately reminds readers of the title of the story.

Chekhov certainly took the advice that “sentences should do more than one thing” seriously.

What might you add to these ideas about the sentence?

Reading Like a Writer: T. Kingfisher

“If you have ever tried to stay afloat on a pair of magic bread slices, then you know what it’s like.”

from A Wizards Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

The equally delightful sentences before this one provide some context. Basically, the main character is trying to escape pursuers and persuades two pieces of bread to act as tiny pontoons (one for each foot) so she can cross a river.

Here are some thoughts about this sentence:

  • This is an excellent example of incidental, non-infodump worldbuilding. It appears organically in the text. It is not boring or long. It does not impede the narrative’s momentum. The best worldbuilding happens similarly.
  • An impossibility for readers is not one for characters. This creates surprise for readers out of the mundane for a character. The subtext, or the character’s assumption, is something like “You might have done this. What? No?” That assumption of the possibility of common experience–even this experience–helps create a closeness between readers and this character.
  • The cliche “you know what it’s like” does at least two things. The first is a surprise as readers realize that no, they can’t know what it is like. The second is an appealing gesture of good faith: What’s possible for me might be possible for you. The characterization in the gesture of good faith outweighed any distancing caused by the realization that the character and I are in different worlds. I was instead charmed by it.

Consider an mundane possibility for a character of yours that is probably impossible for readers. How might it be casually, incidentally presented in a way that indicates good faith and community?

Learning from William Faulkner

That title is misleading since it would be easy to teach a class on Faulkner (indeed, people do) and this it just one post. I do recommend reading his work as a Creative Writing textbook. Even a sentence is a good place to start.

From The Sound and the Fury, “His hands were jabbing at my face and he was saying something and trying to bite me, I reckon, and then they hauled him off and held him heaving and thrashing and yelling and they held his arms and he tried to kick me until they dragged him back.”

Trying to read this as a writer, here are some thoughts.

  • I have not written many violent physical confrontations, but this sentence seems to emphasize the visual images of a character in a specific moment rather than fight choreography. In other words, rather than a second-by-second description of who was where when, readers are within one of the character’s consciousnesses.
  • This sentence characterizes both the character being attacked and the one attacking. Faulkner gives us the experience through words his character would choose, through the vocabulary of a specific character: “reckon,” “thrashing,” repetition, and the alliteration of “held him heaving.” Described actions characterize the attacker, whose “hands were jabbing,” “trying to bite,” and, once they held his arms, he kicked.
  • The conventional wisdom in Creative Writing seems to be that events that happen quickly are best presented in many short sentence (see, for example, Heather Sellers’s excellent The Practice of Creative Writing : “. . . you use short sentences to indicate fast-paced action . . . And when you want to slow down the pace, in order to show a process that is taking place over a long period of time, use a long sentence” [203]). But, I wonder. Here is Faulkner again in short sentences:
    • His hands were jabbing at my face. He was saying something. He tried to bite me, I reckon. Then they hauled him off. He heaved and thrashed and yelled. They held his arms. He tried to kick me. They dragged him back.
    • Perhaps the experience of reading these short sentences and the moment being described contrast too sharply for me, but the periods jerk the fast-paced action to a stop. That Faulkner’s longer sentence doesn’t stop gives the experience of reading it and what it describes greater speed than the shorter sentences.
  • Since I’ve quoted Sellers above, I’ll also mention the excellent Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively by Hans Ostrom, Wendy Bishop, and Katharine Haake. More specifically, their exercise “Sentence Sounds: Exploring the ‘Conjunctive’ and ‘Disjunctive,'” on 171-173, mentions Faulkner in interesting ways.

Learning from Steve Martin

This is the first sentence from one of his novels, An Object of Beauty:

I am tired, so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yager, yet I worry that unless I write her story down, and see it bound and tidy on my bookshelf, I will be unable to ever write about anything else.

What writing strategies does it suggest?

  • A character’s fairly direct statement of desire can be an effective hook, but this sentence includes, more interestingly, conflicting desires. The character seems to both want to forget Lacy and to think about her deeply enough to have written about her.
  • The sentence presents movement from one state of mind (“tired”), to another (“worry”), to a third (a dedication to a task/desire). “Yet” bridges two of these states of mind. “Unless” gives not completing the task or fulfilling the desire a consequence for the character. The sentence feels like a plan and includes something at risk for the character. Readers are likely to read on to see if the character gets what they want and how the plan unfolds.
  • The sentence also characterizes. The character, at least so far, feels comfortable trying to tell this story and hopes to see it “bound and tidy” on a shelf.

Learning from Jeanette Winterson

From The Passion:

It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock. What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the Emperor was busy.

Odd to be so governed by an appetite.

I read these paragraphs while on study abroad in London about thirty years ago. I bought the book immediately. Here are some thoughts.

  • Direct statement by the author can characterize effectively. This first sentence humanizes a historical figure or at least reveals surprising information about him, true or not. But it also raises several interesting implied questions, some of which the novel answers and some of which it does not. (Napoleon? Chicken? Of all his passions, this one? Is this the passion of the title?)
  • While direct statements can characterize, this beginning uses far more than that strategy. The first sentence presents implied questions. It also suggests a setting (the kitchen), an ongoing process (cooking the birds), and that process characterizes (chickens must be ready on demand, no matter how wasteful).
  • The location in time (Napoleon’s day) and more specifically (the kitchen) are presented almost incidentally in the first sentence. The second sentence gives readers images.
  • The second paragraph begins to characterize the narrator/main character and might raise philosophical questions. (The narrating character finds it odd to be so governed by appetite? Or is it the kitchen that is oddly governed by an appetite to please Napoleon?)
  • These paragraphs also introduce a community of at least Napoleon, chefs, the speaker, and perhaps the chickens.

Learning from Kirstin Valdez Quade

Not long ago, I finished The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade. It is a very good novel. When trying to read like a writer, I’m working to notice not just sentence-level techniques but larger narrative structures as well. Here are some thoughts on that level about The Five Wounds.

Since there are spoilers here, it might be best to read the book before reading this post.

  • Religion is a real part of the characters’ lives. It influences how they feel about themselves, their drinking, their children, plot events, and their own and each other’s actions. I’ve no idea how Valdez Quade feels about religion, but she uses it to round her characters. Specifically, her use of religion reminds me of Faulkner’s phrase from his Nobel Prize speech: “the human heart in conflict with itself” alone is worth writing about.
  • Consider variations on tropes. Valdez Quade uses a terminal illness as a ticking clock. Initially, the ill character won’t get treated and won’t ever tell others (including friends, children, and grandchildren) that she might die. Along with other methods of characterization, the emotional danger this represents to other characters was scary, fascinating, and seemed like likely behavior.
  • Another variation has to do with entrepreneurship. “Get a Job,” from Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, suggests ways the economic realities characters face can be useful for writers. Valdez Quade builds on this. A character’s efforts to provide plays a significant role in the novel. It presents real tension in several scenes.
  • Consider the reactions of flat, almost-part-of-the-setting characters. In The Five Wounds, a bored medical student is in the background, playing with a stethoscope, while the attending physician delivers a diagnosis. The diagnosis is specific medical jargon that neither most readers nor the character being diagnosed can understand, but the medical student does. The student suddenly stops playing when hearing the diagnosis. That reaction and the doctor’s seriousness shows the significance of the diagnosis.
  • I’m generally wary of flashbacks. Obviously, the content of flashbacks can characterize. So too, at least as Valdez Quade uses them, can the number of flashbacks. Younger characters have very few. Despite their tramas, they live in the present. Older characters seem to spend most of their time in the past. Much more often than the younger characters, they live there. The extent to which characters live in the past can significantly differentiate them from each other for readers.

Abstractions and details

The writing that interests readers in poems or prose is usually low on the scale of abstraction. It is writing that presents concrete details and avoids abstract generalities or commentary. Abstractions are necessary in some cases, but more often interesting writing avoids them. When the details are presented so that they remind readers of their senses and perceptions, they are more engaging. When the details are presented so that they evoke the memory of senses and perceptions and the importance of those details are obvious to a character or persona, they are even more engaging and interesting for readers.

Consider the following from Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry: “Instead of the abstraction nutriment, one might use such an image as ‘juicy cheeseburger on dark rye with dill pickle.’ What concrete images can you think of that might be used to stand for the following abstractions: exercise, amusement, wretchedness, locality, velocity, attraction, dryness, spiciness, agitation, deception, insufficiency, authority, success?”

Think about the following quotations as you work:

Elias Canetti . . . had declared that “Among the most sinister phenomena in intellectual history is the avoidance of the concrete.” He means that in ignoring what is the “closest and most concrete” of realities, we are endangering the future of humanity. When generals and politicians refer to the deaths of innocent civilians in wartime as “collateral damage,” they avoid concrete images of mangled bodies, obscuring the truth with abstraction. –John Fredrick Nims and David Mason

We think in generalities, but we live in detail. –Alfred North Whitehead

The artist seeks out the luminous detail and presents it. He does not comment. –Ezra Pound

Here is one example of moving down a scale of abstraction:


Men’s clothing

Formal men’s clothing


Suits that I’ve seen

Suits that I’ve worn

The suits I’ve worn that my father paid for

The suit that my father gave me that he bought when he was my age

The suit my father gave me that he wore to church and that I wore to clubs

The pale blue suit, almost white, that he gave me

The pale blue suit with one low button on the long tight jacket, fat linebacker shoulders, and thick cuffs on baggy trousers

The suit lined with smooth silk but mostly made of cheap, tough as burlap, cotton

The suit that smelled a little like worry, like smoke, like apple pollen

The suit she liked so much that she danced with me

The suit I wore while we kissed behind the building

The suit with Isaiah 74:3 handwritten in sharp letters on a card in the breast pocket

Write a similar example of your own.

Reading Like a Writer: John Crowley

These are the first sentences of Little, Big by John Crowley:

On a certain day in June, 19–, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited. His name was Smokey Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one the conditions placed on his coming there at all.

And this is the last:

Even the weather isn’t as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were.

Here are some thoughts on strategies I noticed in the first sentences:

  • The first phrase both promises a “certain day” and ignores that promise by including only the month and century. The first seven words contain a degree of tension between the abstract and the specific, maybe between the certain dates of history and a more general nostalgia. Tension between what is objectively before us and what might be imagined in the past and the present and the consequences of moving back and forth are probably themes of the novel.
    • This tension continues with the unnamed and abstract, but capitalized, City
    • and the “town or place” called, more specifically, “Edgewood.”
  • The main character immediately has a task, something they are doing, and that character is moving forward into an unknown area bit by bit, like the reader. If I’m remembering well, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino begins similarly but much more explicitly.
  • In the second of the first sentences, the character is named. Readers might have read on just to discover the character’s name. It is a slightly odd name. Odd names raise implicit questions: “What kind of person has that name?” “What kind of person names their child this and how has this name shaped him?” Characters beyond the named character are suggested.
  • The second of the first sentences also suggests the reason for the task, for the process, the character is involved in: a marriage. And, interestingly, conditions have been placed upon the successful completion of the task. More implicit questions follow: “Who would expect this? Why?” “What will happen along the way?” “Will he be tempted to ride and how will he respond to the temptation?” “How did they meet?”

The last sentence is interesting because it makes a traditional, nostalgic beginning part of the end of the book. At the same time, it warns against nostalgia with three “nevers” and calls for it with three “remembers.” With “once upon a time,” it evokes fairy tales and the possibilities imagination suggests.

Consider trying some of these strategies in what you write next.

Reading Like a Writer: “Sonny’s Blues”

This sentence is from “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

An awesome pair of sentences from an awesome story. What might we learn from them as writers?

  1. Don’t be afraid, or not too afraid, to address big questions. The rest of the story, at least in one reading of it, leads to this assertion about why we make art. The rest of the story provides the personal context for a character to make this statement. I don’t say that to minimize the other big questions in the story: race, relationships, ethics and others, but these sentences address aesthetics directly.
  2. The sentences also appear very organically as a part of the story, as a comment on a blues performance. They are in the middle of the paragraph in which they appear and it is possible to miss them. This possibility, it seems to me, makes them more valuable when found.
  3. The sentences are also in the language of a specific character, who comes to think this in a specific situation that is part of a larger specific relationship. I don’t think Baldwin started with these sentences, but the story seems almost build around them. Perhaps this third point is just a way of restating the first two.
  4. To get even more focused, one elements (a tale), which contains others (suffering, delight, conditional/optional triumph), is described (never new) in ways Pound, for example, might be critical of, and its necessity is also stated (it always must be heard). The second sentence, fused with a third, justifies the first sentence and its assertion.