Tag Archives: #writerlife

Self-Editing: Looking at Paragraphs and Sentence Length

I was recently asked how long sentences should be. There is no hard and fast rule, but opinions abound, so I will offer you some things to be considered in the editing process.

Let me say first that sentence length is a matter of the author’s personal style. Some of us write long sentences strung together with commas, and others break things out into shorter, more concise packets of information.

If you are familiar with the rules of punctuation and use your commas wisely, longer sentences will flow well.

If you’re unsure of how to use commas, and simply put them anywhere you pause, or take a breath, you’ll have a long, convoluted mess on your hands, similar to this sentence.

In writing genre work, we consider the age and reading experience of our intended reader. Generally speaking, for younger readers, we use shorter sentences and a narrower vocabulary.

For older readers who read in a wide variety of genres, compound sentences and a wide vocabulary pose no problems.

In the final chapter of his novel, Ulysses,  James Joyce enters the head of Molly Bloom. He spews an internal dialogue that runs on for more than 24,000 words with only ONE punctuation mark. The final paragraph of the book goes like this:

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “

As a side note, I had to take a college class in order to read and enjoy James Joyce’s work. Most of us hope our work won’t require a reader to take a college-level course to appreciate it.

Sentence length becomes problematic for most readers when:

  • The sentence contains numerous clauses
  • The clauses are unrelated.
  • The sentence runs on and on and on.
  • The author uses little or no punctuation.

Several factors affect sentence length. Commas and the fundamental rules for their use exist for a reason. If we want the reading public to understand our work, we need to follow them.

Commas join two independent clauses. The independent clause is a complete stand-alone sentence. Sometimes, if sentences are too short, our work becomes choppy.

  • Greg worships the ground I walk on. His adoration never tires me. (Two sentences)
  • Greg worships the ground I walk on, and his adoration never tires me. (One compound sentence)

Dependent clauses are unfinished sentences and can’t stand on their own. They should be joined to the sentence with a conjunction.

  • Greg worships the ground I walk on and brings me my coffee.

You do not join unrelated independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences) with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuum: the Dreaded Comma Splice:

Comma Splice: Greg kissed the hem of my garment, the dog likes to ride shotgun.

The dog has little to do with Greg, other than the fact they both adore me. The same thought, written correctly:

  • Greg kissed the hem of my garment.
  • (New paragraph) The dog likes to ride shotgun.

Would it be better if we used a semicolon? No. A semicolon in an untrained hand is a needle to the eye of an editor.

The dog riding shotgun is an independent clause and does not relate at all to Greg and his adoration of me.

Semicolons join independent clauses that could stand alone, but which relate to each other.

I recommend you avoid joining more than two clauses. Even when an author uses semicolons correctly, they can create some lo-o-o-o-ong, run-on sentences. Sentences comprised of more than twenty to thirty words can be difficult to slog through.

Sentences all become paragraphs, whether they are comprised of one sentence or several.

Paragraphs are not just short blocks of randomly assembled sentences. A paragraph is a group of sentences that fleshes out a single idea. That means that only one thought or speaker is featured in each paragraph.

The rules are simple:

  • Present a single idea per paragraph.
  • Present the dialogue and reactions of only one person per paragraph.
  • Present the viewpoint of one character per paragraph.

All through her book, Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones wrote two points of view into one paragraph. The story is brilliant, but that habit made the dialogue very difficult to follow in some places.

A paragraph done wrong:

Ron said, “You cheated on me.” Jamie clutched his arm. “I don’t want to lose you.” He pulled away. “You disgust me.”

That’s a confusing passage, but it doesn’t have to be. Three ideas are explored there: Ron’s accusation, Jamie’s guilt and fear of losing him, and finally, Ron’s disgust.

Ron said, “You cheated on me.”

Jamie clutched his arm. “I don’t want to lose you.”

He pulled away. “You disgust me.”

While it makes for short paragraphs, you must break out Jamie’s reaction. One thought, one point of view per paragraph, no matter how short that makes it.

In English, a good paragraph agrees with itself. It is logical, and the central idea it contains is developed.

Sometimes, we will end up with long paragraphs. In a paper book, paragraph length isn’t as much of a problem as in an eBook. I’ve noticed that versions of eBook novels containing long paragraphs tend to appear as page after page of an unbroken wall of words.

That can be confusing, and the reader may decide to move on to a different book.

Thus, for a manuscript that you intend to publish as an eBook, consider dividing long passages at logical places, using two paragraphs to explore the idea. This is especially a problem when the paragraph contains a long section of internal dialogue, which is frequently written in italics.

Each author writes differently. Both sentence length and paragraph length are individual, part of the fingerprint that is the author’s voice. If longer sentences are your style, by all means, write them.

I no longer use as many compound sentences as I once did. Those who have read my earlier work are grateful for that gradual change.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from Ulysses, by James Joyce, published 1922 by Sylvia Beach

Wikipedia contributors, “Ulysses (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ulysses_(novel)&oldid=777540958 (accessed May 7, 2017).

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, Tim Stevens, Illustrator, Greenwillow Books (US), Methuen (November 1986) Fair Use.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 February 2020, 02:23 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Howl%27s_Moving_Castle&oldid=941685495> [accessed 25 February 2020]

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Update on Works in Progress #amwriting

Time flies when you’re having fun—it’s June already, and nothing I planned to have completed is done at this point.  However, I have made progress on some really important things.

I bought a new vacuum cleaner.

I’ve got a new vegan cookbook.

I dog-sat my neighbor’s boxer for four days.

But we’re here to talk about writing. In the short story department, I have had one story accepted by an anthology. I sent two others to magazines, and they’re currently hanging in that peculiar limbo. Waiting to hear if I’ve sold them or not is always a little frustrating but I try to just send them off and forget them, which is why it’s good to keep a list of what you sent and to where.

This is where the spreadsheet for submissions comes in handy. You can do this by hand or use Excel or Google Sheets. (see my blogpost of 1 May 2017 – Submissions: discovering who wants them and how to manage your backlist. My list has:

  • Date of submission
  • Title of Story
  • Genre
  • Name of publication/contest it was submitted to
  • Website for publication/contest
  • How it was submitted (i.e., through Submittable or through the publisher’s website)
  • Closing date
  • The date you can expect to hear back by at the latest: 90 – 175 days is common.
  • Where to respond and who to notify in the case of simultaneous submissions – some publications/contests allow simultaneous submissions, but you must notify them immediately if your work is accepted elsewhere.
  • Accepted Yes/No
  • Date accepted/rejected
  • Remarks if given

Once your spreadsheet is set up, it’s easy to keep track of what you sent to where and where it is in the process.  Using the Submittable App makes it even easier—they keep track of your submissions for you.

I’ve slowed down on the short story mill—my novels have once again claimed my attention.

The Author in her natural habitat.

The first draft of Heaven’s Altar is ¾ of the way done but is at a creative plateau point. This is a novel set in the Tower of Bones world of Neveyah but takes place fifteen generations before Edwin’s time. I have taken my main character through his vision quest, and he is now headed toward the showdown with destiny.

Those final showdown scenes are always so difficult to get out of my head and onto paper.  I do a lot of thinking, of trying to pry that elusive nugget of gold loose. But it’s still refusing to show itself, so for the moment, that manuscript is at the “inching” stage—mostly on the back burner.

Bleakbourne on Heath, my alternate Arthurian mishmash is nearing completion. This is a work-in-progress that began life as a serial, and while I did end the serialized version with a wedding, the main thread was left incomplete. That story has languished for two years while other projects took up my attention. I intend to finish Bleakbourne during NaNoWriMo this year, so I have been designing the final showdown for Merlin, Mordred, and Leryn. I know where Bramblestein, Lancelyn, and Galahad must be and what they each must do. I have also figured out how Morgause the Cat fits into the story and what her role will be in the big event.

Baron’s Hollow, my contemporary novel is in the outlining and backstory stage still. This book will also emerge more fully during NaNoWriMo if all goes well with Bleakbourne. As that should only take about 10,000 words to finish, I will have plenty of time to get Baron’s Hollow off to a good start. I expect Baron’s Hollow to top out at about 60,000 words.

I’m still trying to figure out the characters, what secrets each is keeping from the others, how those secrets mount up, and how each member of the cast makes it to the final showdown. In order to write their story, I need to know these people as individuals, understand how they would or wouldn’t react to each situation, and what the catalyst for the final event is. I know what has to happen during that scene. I know where it will happen. I just need to know why these particular people do what they do.

Finally, Julian Lackland, the final installment in the Billy’s Revenge series has been completed. I am just waiting for comments from the final group of beta readers. If all goes well, he will go to print in September. If more revisions are required than I hope, it could be November or December–I refuse to rush him to print.

So that is the update—I’ve been averaging 700 to 1000 new words a day, which isn’t exactly burning up the universe. However, combined with the revisions and editing work for other authors, it does move me forward.

How has your new work been progressing? Feel free to let me know in the comments, but include no links please, as the spam blocker will send those directly to the spam folder.

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Thoughts on the Advent of Autumn #amwriting

I’ve mentioned before that I love the changing of the seasons. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the colors of our native big-leaf maples and alders are beginning to paint the landscape in shades of yellow and gold, dotted with pops of red sumac and scarlet vine-maples.

In the higher hills of the lowlands and up in the Cascades, the gold of our native larches is astonishing to those who’ve never seen a deciduous conifer. It can seem like an entire forest has died. But they’re only getting ready to sleep through the winter, the way bears, maples, and cottonwoods do.

I’ve always been awed by the majesty of the autumn forest here in my part of the world.

The sky is also changing. The days are growing shorter and the rains of the monsoon months approach. The long dry spell has ended, and rain has returned to us.

In November, the gray overcast skies linger unending, eternal. My friends and I wonder if the sun will ever shine again. But just as I am feeling desperately sorry for myself, the clouds will part to reveal a patch of blue so beautiful my eyes hurt. I have to dig out my sunglasses to shield my weak, Northwesterner’s eyes from the radiance of the great yellow orb.

We who have grown up in the long dark winters have little tolerance for such brilliance. But we’re always ready to discuss our never-ending quest for cheap sunglasses. We adore those accessories that are so much more than a fashion statement.

As my previous posts have said, these are the writing weeks, the mad dash to finish the first draft of my work in progress, and my preparations for NaNoWriMo. Stockpiling staple groceries, perusing my recipe file for crock-pot meals—comfort food is on my mind at this time of year.

After all, food was love in the family I grew up in, and our favorite comfort foods make the winter seem warmer. The time we spend at the table sharing the evening meal is inviolable—no TV, just quiet music and conversation. This is our time to reconnect, to rebuild the ties of love and family that bind us.

Autumn’s glory will linger for a brief few weeks. The rainy season will come, turning unraked leaves to sodden, moldy messes waiting for the winds of November to send them flying from yard to yard. I will watch from my front room window and admire the leafy ballet.

Once the leaves are gone, evening and morning will still bring color, but it will be the sky that has the dominant role. At that time of year, the sun, low on the southern horizon, reflects on the clouds, turning them every shade of pink, gold, red, purple, and even a gray so dark it’s black.

Sporadically juxtaposed against that riot of cloud-color will be patches of poignant blue. It’s a color that makes my heart ache for spring, makes me yearn for sunshine and warmth.

I have prepared the back porch for winter, abandoned my favorite thinking place. The cushions are put away and the chairs are pulled to the center where they will stay dry except in the heaviest wind-driven rains.

Since spring is a full six months away, and the weather is fairly nice today, I will uncover a chair and sit on the back porch and write about a world where the sun is shining, and birds are singing.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Thomas Worthington Whittredge – Woods of Ashokan.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Thomas_Worthington_Whittredge_-_Woods_of_Ashokan.jpg&oldid=296638658 (accessed September 13, 2018).

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