Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The beauty of long sentences in your memoir

Saturday we began looking at your memoir’s sentences: The way you write them can enhance your readers’ (a) enjoyment and (b) their understanding of your message.

Specifically, we considered writing short sentences and sentence fragments for impact and punch. (Click on Sentences are a little like purses …” if you missed it.) 

You also want to vary sentence length: Write both short, simple sentences and long, complex ones.  

This is how Joseph F. Williams explains it:

“A clear and concise sentence is a singular achievement, a whole passage of them even more so. But if all your sentences were so concise that they never exceeded 20 words, you’d be like a pianist who could play only a few notes at a time.… A competent writer must therefore know both how to write clear short sentences, and how to combine those short sentences into one that is longer and more complex, but just as concise and just as easy to understand.” (Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace; emphasis mine)

There’ll always be a place for the short sentence,” Pico Iyer says, praising “compressed wisdom” and “elegant conciseness,” but he also says “…We’ve got shortness and speed up the wazoo these days. The long sentence opens up the very doors that a short sentence simply slams shut.”

Iyer describes a well-crafted long sentence as “… the collection of clauses … many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions.…”

“I cherish [famous writer] Thomas Pynchon’s prose … not just because it’s beautiful, but because his long, impeccable sentences take me, with each clause, further from the normal and predictable, and deeper into dimensions I hadn’t dared contemplate.…

“The promise of the long sentence is that it will take you beyond the known, far from shore, into depths and mysteries you can’t get your mind, or most of your words, around.…

“When I feel the building tension as Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ swells with clause after biblical clause of all the things people of his skin color cannot do—I feel as if I’m stepping out on the crowded, overlighted fluorescent culture of my local convenience store and being taken up to a very high place from which I can see across time and space, in myself and in the world.” (Pico Iyer, “The Writing Life: The point of the long and winding sentence,” Special to the Los Angeles Times; emphasis mine)

On Saturday we’ll look at long sentences again. Between now and then, look over your rough drafts and experiment with writing both short sentences and long sentences.

Then read them aloud and see how they sound. Remember what Collette and Johnson said, “… Arrange, rearrange, or prearrange them to suit particular purposes.” (Finding Common Ground)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

“Sentences are a little like purses…”

“Sentences are a little like purses: They come in various sizes and can hold a little or a lot.” (Bill Roorbach, Writing Life Stories)

“Just as there are arts of weaving and fly-fishing and dancing, so there are arts of sentence making.

“…Writing is a partnership with the reader.… The way you put your sentences together counts a good deal toward how your reader will understand what you say.  

“You can … arrange, rearrange, or prearrange them to suit particular purposes.

“The writer shapes the sentence to indicate how readers should construe the meaning.… Building a sentence, then, is a way of defining and specifying meaning, of focusing a reader’s attention.…” (Collette and Johnson, Finding Common Ground)

Short Sentences:

“… In artful prose, [sentence] length is controlled and varied. Some stylists write short sentences to strike a note of urgency.” (Joseph F. Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace)

“… Short sharp sentences increase tension in a scene.” (Lynda R. Young)

Here’s how Kristen Welch writes short sentences to express tension and urgency:  

“She came to us alone, with a baby she didn’t want stirring in her womb.

“Orphaned at a young age, she wandered this earth unloved and unwanted.

“Charity came to us broken, detached, angry.

“Outwardly she pushed others away, isolating herself through pain, distancing her heart from love.

“But we loved her anyway. We set firm boundaries and we loved. We prayed. We fasted. We begged God to draw her close. We shed so many tears over this child having a child.

“We feared for her unborn son. How would this detached girl attach to a baby she never wanted?

“He was born to an angry mother. She didn’t want him.

“And we didn’t know what to do.…”  (Kristen Welch, We Are THAT Family

Consider writing short sentences here and there in your vignettes, but also think about writing sentence fragments—incomplete sentences and thoughts.

Grammatically, sentence fragments are incorrect, but “There are occasions when a sentence fragment can be stylistically effective, exactly what you want and no more. ‘Harrison Ford has said that he would be more than willing to take on another Indiana Jones project. In a New York Minute.’ As long as you are clearly in control of the situation, this is permissible, but [doing so] depends on the circumstances.” (CCC Foundation, emphasis mine) 

Breaking the rules occasionally with sentence fragments can add punch to your writing. Or sizzle. Or grief.

Wednesday we’ll look at long sentences but for now, examine your WIPs (works in progress—your rough drafts) for sentences you can modify. (Remember what dear old William Zinsser said, “Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the second or third time.”)

Where can you write “quick, breathless utterances” (Williams) to create tension, urgency, drama, or emotion?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

“If there is any possible way for readers to misread and misinterpret what you write, they will.”

Did you know that 80% of our communication is misunderstood?

Here’s how Kendall Haven says it:

“It has long been a guiding principle of writing that,
if there is any possible way
for readers to misread
and misinterpret
what you write,
they will.
The purpose of laborious
and tedious editing
is to make the writing so precise
that it cannot be misread
and misinterpreted.”
(emphasis mine; Kendall Haven, at A Storied Career)

Consider this oh-so-true statement:

“I know that you believe you understand
what you think I said,
but I’m not sure you realize that
what you heard
is not what I meant.”
(attributed to Robert McCloskey,
U.S. State Department spokesman)

So what are you, a memoir writer, to do about that?

After you’ve written a vignette for your memoir, put it aside for a few days and think about other things. Then, get out that manuscript and, with pen in hand, read it. You’ll be surprised at how objective you will be after stepping back from it for a while. Jot notes to yourself about changes you’d like to make.

Next, tell yourself that rewriting is not punishment and make those revisions, keeping in mind that every good writer revises his or her manuscript a number of times.

Then set aside your story again for a few days and then read it aloud. Your ears can alert you to what your eyes missed. Repeat this step as often as necessary until you’re satisfied.

Put yourself in your readers’ shoes and, for their sake, clarify. Simplify. Spell out.

Ask yourself, “Will they understand my story? Is it clear?”

Have you used lingo (Christianese, for example) or language (foreign or technical, for example) your readers might not understand?

Reword everything that could send an ambiguous meaning or cause confusion.

Most of all, have fun spiffing up your rough drafts! Revision is an art: polish your story and make it beautiful.

Remember, your stories are important. Stories can change individuals, families, communities, towns, nations—and even the world!

Stories can change lives for eternity. Write your stories!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sobbing, wild-eyed, gasping leaps of faith

Breaking news!

Today Charlie Hale posted a mini-excerpt from my “Where I’m From” over at his blog, along with pieces from a couple of other people.

First read Charlie’s post, Who Are You? Where Are You From? Then read today’s post, The Ancient Warrior, Hula Hoops and Yeats. (My piece is the Hula Hoop one.)

Have you been writing a “Where I’m From” piece? I hope so. (See my August 31 post, Where are You From.) Charlie’s posts will give you oodles of inspiration! 

OK, now on to today's original post:

What leaps of faith have you taken?

I’m talking about a heart-stopping, bawling, howling plunge into the unfamiliar—with God.

A breath-taking, blubbering dive into the untried, the unproven—with God.

I wince when I type the phrase, “taking a leap of faith,” because its overuse has stolen its intensity, its radicalness.

I’m talking about faith that calls you to hurdle yourself over the edge—blindfolded, shrieking—into the unknown, with God.

You have no guarantee things will work out.

You can only begin to imagine what surprises await you.

You wonder how you’ll hold up, or if you’ll even live through it.

You feel the last-moment doubts, the dread, the teeth-gritting, the labored breathing. 

The heart-racing, stomach-knotting, head-spinning terror.

The throbbing, queasy feeling of being out of control.

You know only three things:      

(1) God asked you to do something way beyond your abilities and comfort zones, something that scares you out of your wits and makes it hard to sleep at night.

(2)  Everything within you cries out, “I must do this. I cannot not do this.”

(3) God, who is trustworthy, will be with you every moment.

What screaming, wild-eyed, gasping leaps of faith have you taken?

What did God teach you through it? What did you learn about yourself? About God? In what ways did the experience strengthen your faith?

Write your stories!

Resources and links:
Where are you from,

Charlie Hale’s Who Are You? Where Are You From,

Charlie Hale’s The Ancient Warrior, Hula Hoops and Yeats,

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

When did “One Act” change the direction of your life?

Just one act took Chris Giovagnoni down a path he never could have foreseen or imagined.

Just one act. One God-inspired act.

It started when he went to a church concert.

“At that time,” says Chris, “I was four months into my new life as a Christian sponge in the tub of Living Water. That night, the Holy Spirit dropped a baby into the tub with me.

“In the middle of the concert, the musician stopped to share a story from a Compassion [International] trip to Haiti. He talked about a woman who came up to him on the street and tried to give him her baby, to give her baby a better life. She was willing to give her baby to a stranger so the baby could escape the hopelessness of extreme poverty.

“It was a moving and powerful story … and I wanted to quit my job and go work in Haiti. I wanted to immerse myself in doing Christ’s work, in serving others. I was anxious to learn if there was an opportunity for me to act on. And then the artist asked me to sponsor a child. Boring.

“I was disappointed … Sending more money wasn’t good enough for me.”

After the concert, Chris learned about Compassion tours that enable people to meet their sponsored children.

“The idea of visiting my sponsored child,” says Chris, “was enough to get me to act. I sponsored Lerionga.

“And because of that one act, I went to Kenya 18 months later and met Lerionga.

“Because of that one act, I heard about a job opening at Compassion while I was in Kenya. I got that job.

“Because of that one act, I met my wife. She’s also a Compassion employee.

“Because of that one act, I’m going to be a father. We’re expecting in September.

“Because of that one act, I have hope that the darkness of my strain of emotional poverty ends with me.”

Great story!

Your life is a series of “one act” choices, too—one act at a time, one choice at a time. Some choices were God-inspired, while others were deliberate, rebellious choices.

Whether they were wise or foolish, a series of “one act” choices brought you to today.

Look back over your life and pinpoint a defining moment when you stood at the crossroads—one of those moments that changed the direction of your life.

What are your “one act” stories?

Remember the three-column timeline I gave you in October? (Click on this link to refresh your memory.) It’s a working document for you, a tool to help you remember your stories and recognize God’s role in them.

That third column will also help you identify your one acts.

When did you find yourself at a life-changing fork in the road? Place yourself right inside Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could.…

… knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I
I took the ______________ (fill in the choice you made)
And that has made all the difference.

And that made all the difference, oh, yes!

Look over your three-column timeline and note the ways God has led you, one act at a time, and brought you to today.

Then start writing: “Just one act took ______________ (fill in your name) down a path [he/she] never could have foreseen or imagined.”

References and links:

Chris Giovagnoni,

Compassion International,

Three-column timeline,

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Evidence: Write about it!

You can't hold in your hands a chunk of God's love.

You can't take a photo of Him, or of His promises, but God does give you evidence of his attributes and activity in your life.

He gives tangible evidence of His love, His power to help, His creation, protection, guidance, forgiveness, His attention to your prayers, and His answers.

“God has blessed his people – just look at the evidence!” (2 Chronicles 31:10b, The Message).

“ … But [God] never left them without evidence of himself and his goodness. For instance, he sends you rain and good crops and gives you food and joyful hearts” (Acts 14:17 NLT).

“There's no end to what has happened in you—it's beyond speech, beyond knowledge. The evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives” (1 Corinthians 1:4, The Message).

The poor and the homeless are desperate for water.… But I'm there to be found, I'm there for them, and I, God of Israel, will not leave them thirsty. I'll open up rivers for them on the barren hills, spouts of fountains in the valleys. I'll turn the baked-clay badlands into a cool pond.… Everyone will see this. No one can miss itunavoidable, indisputable evidence that I, God, personally did this...” Isaiah 41:17-20 (The Message).

You have all this evidence confirmed by your own eyes and ears. Shouldn't you be talking about it...?” (Isaiah 48:6, The Message).

This is important: Remember … that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced … the Lord,… his majesty, his mighty hand…. It was not your children who saw what he did for you in the desert until you arrived at this place… Deuteronomy 11:2-7 (NIV).

Do you grasp what those words mean? They mean you have a story inside that only you can share. You need to write your stories!

Let this be said of you and of me:

Our children will hear about the wonders of the Lord.
His righteous acts will be told to those yet unborn.
They will hear about everything He has done.”
(Psalm 22:30-31 NLT)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Your Valentine’s Day memories

When I was a wee little girl, my mother taught me to fold red paper in half to cut a symmetrical heart shape. Then she showed me how to add a white paper doily to make it into a Valentine—probably for my grandparents or the neighbors across the street—and more likely than not, the glue we used was a flour-and-water mixture.

(Just as I was getting ready to post this, I ran across this Valentine my mother and I made together in 1953.)

To this day, I consider hand-made Valentines superior to store-bought ones, thanks to my mother’s joy in making them with me.

What are your earliest Valentine’s Day memories?

Did you celebrate Valentine’s Day in elementary school? If so, what was your party like?

My classmates and I decorated our own folder-like containers and our teacher tacked them on the walls around the room. When the party began, we milled around the room slipping Valentines into each others’ folders.  

Did you make your Valentines or buy them ready-made from the store? Was buying them a financial hardship for your family or for one of your classmates? If so, what did you, or they, do about it?

Did you choose a special Valentine for the classmate you had a crush on?

If you could live a particular Valentine’s Day over again, how would you live it differently?

Was there a child in your class that no one liked? Did you or your friends refuse to give him or her a Valentine? Did your teacher or parents intervene? What did you learn from this?

Maybe you were the child no one liked and you got only a few Valentines. How did that make you feel? What did it teach you? What or who encouraged and sustained you during those years? How did that experience shape who you are today?

What Bible verses could you share to encourage someone in a similar situation? I think of Nehemiah 4 in which Nehemiah and the people of Judah cried out, “Oh, God, these people despise us!”

Despite constant threats against them by the Samaritans, the people kept working hard at their daily tasks, praying all the time, and Nehemiah stood before them and said, “Don’t be afraid of them! Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome!” And so, under Nehemiah’s leadership and with faith in God, they persevered in carrying out their daily duties.

Take a few days to relive Valentine’s Days of your childhood. Reflect, ponder, examine.

Get inside your story—dig deep to discover lessons or blessings you might not have recognized at the time.

When you write your vignettes, ask yourself what values you want to hand down: thoughtfulness, generosity, wisdom, fairness, creativity, or how to live without regrets.

Your stories are important.

Who knows? Years from now, perhaps someone reading your story will be the one people don’t like, the one who feels despised, like the people of Judah. The one that struggles to keep going to school day after day. The one who needs to hear, “Don’t be afraid of them! Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome!” The one that desperately needs courage to face another painful Valentine’s Day.

Write your Valentine’s Day stories!