Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Crafting Wickedly Effective Prose: SFWC

One of the sessions at the San Francisco Writers' Conference that I found not just ultra useful but super entertaining was Constance Hale's "Crafting Wickedly Effective Prose". Visit her site for more resources (seriously, writer heaven) and info on her book Sin and Syntax, whose tagline is--taah-daah--How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose.

Connie turned out to be one of those wonderful people that do great in front of a crowd. She came across as natural and funny without seeming to try, and the content she shared was not just interesting and relevant, but also practical and hands-on.

Here are my notes on Connie's session. I hope you find them useful, if not as entertaining and alive as the session itself. Should have recorded her :)

First, she shared five Principles To Take Your Prose Up A Notch (included in her book):

#1: Remember that every sentence is a mini-narrative.

  • Someone or something is in a predicament.
  • Subject + Predicate
  • Sentence drama makes us pay attention

Connie started out with the basics. When you write a sentence, you first need to decide: will it be short or terse for rhythm purposes? Or will it roll out in a more languorous way? A short sentence is action-driven; a long one is more descriptive. A short sentence is more naturally comedic, can increase tension. A long one is more lyrical. It's not that one or the other is right or wrong, but you need to make a decision on what kind you need at that moment in your work.

Then you'll define the subject of the sentence. Sounds elemental, but--well, you'd be surprised. The subject is what the sentence is about. Defining it is important for the tone. Often we see writing that seems to meander all over the place: that's because the subject changes too often. It's lack of focus, and results in muddy writing. She gave a great example of a speech of George W's, which had the entire room howling (yes, even Republicans).

Sentences are formed by--yep, you guessed it--subject and predicate. The subject is what the sentence is about, and the predicate is, literally, the predicament. Avoid fluff--that is, anything that does not accentuate the predicament. When you do this, the result is dramatic writing.

You need to have control over where you want the bang.

#2  Use specific, concrete nouns.

  • Avoid abstractions such as "vehicle" or "means of transportation"
  • Keep away from commonplace words like "boat"
  • Try for the most precise word you can: "canoe", "skiff", "yacht", "Boston whaler", etc.

So what kind of nouns do you need? You need ones that are visual, precise, and non-generic. She gave the whole room about a minute to come up with as many synonyms for "boat" as we could, then checked who had the most. Five people had more than fifteen (fifteen, yeah. I had like five.) and had them stand up to play a sort of "Stop" game where each took turns reading a word from their list. If the others also had that word, they'd have to cross it out, so that each reading was for a new, previously unnamed word. Whoever had the most original words won, but of course that wasn't the point. Everyone was flabbergasted at the sheer amount of synonyms for "boat"... And that was the point.

Connie recommended the pronto acquisition of a thesaurus--a good one, preferably one that has visual capabilities. She asked us to rethink our nouns in order to make them as specific as humanly possible.

#3  Pick action-packed verbs.

  • Choose dynamic, not static, verbs
  • Use the active voice for more dramatic writing
  • Keep with a clear tense, like the simple present

The same principles discussed for nouns apply to verbs, too. They need to be visual, precise, and non-generic. And, for the love of all that's holy, don't use adverbs. Please.

#4  Keep your sentences simple and focused.

  • Clear subjects keep writing focused
  • Stark sentences are brilliant and memorable
  • Pare distractions (endless adjectives, unnecessary adverbs)

Stripped-down sentences convey greater focus. Think of the great opening lines of literature--how many start with adverbs? Seriously. Think about it. "Call me Ishmael"? How's that for stark and focused? Or "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins"? "Mother died today"? "He was an old man who fished alone on a skiff..."? Brilliance--pure brilliance.

#5  Keep your parts parallel and rhythmic.

  • Keep elements of a list syntactically parallel
  • Let phrases echo each other in sound
  • Let rhythms build

Connie advised to play with rhythm and sound; they're your best aides to touch emotions, to create tension, to dissipate it. Draw parallels ("a government by the people, for the people"), and to use mnemonics when possible, especially when enumerating a list of things, because it helps people remember.

There you have it, folks. Connie Hale's pearls of wisdom on wickedly effective prose. Now go write something :)


  1. The Boston Whaler exploded through the mounting seas. Strapped to her seat, Guilie felt the throbbing of the engines and wondered if the skipper felt the churning of her emotions.

    Gee, yeah, this could be fun.

    Pearls pinging on the keyboard of my writing soul.

    1. "Pearls pinging on the keyboard"? Love it, Rick! Thanks for the visit :D

  2. I'm not as poetic as Rick above, but great stuff, Guile. Looks like you had fun!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Rasana--glad you liked the post. Connie's session was excellent, and I hope you take a stroll over to her site for more goodies :)

  3. Those are great tips. Thanks for sharing them, and I'm glad you enjoyed the conference! I always enjoy visiting San Francisco to meet other writers - especially Nanowrimo-ers in my case... ;)

  4. Great tips Guilie, Thanks for sharing! Holly Michael

  5. These are excellent tips! Thanks for sharing them! Stopping by from the A-Z challenge. I'm number 1013, thought I'd go round to the other lucky 13s and say hello. Looking forward to reading more from you!


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