Friday, June 1, 2012

Busted!—Leif Enger Caught Sparking His Sentences

Here is one of my all-time favorite quotes about writing, from Virginia Woolf:
“Each sentence must have, at its heart, a little spark of fire, and this, whatever the risk, the novelist must pluck with his own hands from the blaze.” 
I keep this taped to my computer to remind me of the writer’s primary—and greatest—challenge: to engage the reader. A little spark of fire in every sentence will do just that.

This quote came to mind while reading Leif Enger’s newest novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome. The novel, set on the road from Minnesota to California in 1915, delineates novelist Monte Becket’s journey to regain purpose after his astounding debut sucks the life from him. He does so by latching onto Glendon Hale, a character with a shady past who is seeking out the wife he abandoned in order to make amends.

The tale is like the river the two men initially navigate: while not always a whitewater thrill-fest, it nonetheless provides enough current to pull the average reader downstream. But if that reader is also a writer, Enger’s sheer command of language will deepen the experience.

Let’s look at some of the many ways Enger sparks his sentences, and see if we couldn’t borrow some of them for our own work.

Raising a reader question by qualifying the usual:
The fourth day of rain I entered the President’s Tavern to find Glendon uneasily drinking coffee with José Barrera.

Grabbing the reader’s attention through thought-provoking groupings of facts, thoughts, and/or events:
[José] was at least sixty yet still managed, through a sanguine outlook on pain, to startle crowds by riding at full gallop standing on his head in the saddle.

Offering the narrator’s witty commentary on another character’s dialogue:
“Yes, it’s true,” Glendon replied, gloomily realizing I was no shield against direct speech.

Making up words that contribute to an interesting word picture:
Like many veteran riders he walked hitchingly as though unused to his own feet.

Substituting “went” with more evocative words:
He lurched to a tarnished urn on the counter, filled his cup and returned to the table.

Using an “unlike list”—often considered an editorial infraction—to advantage:
“Her husband is named Soto. He has two fruit orchards and three or four languages.”

“You should leave soon, though. That river is losing its patience.

Engaging the senses:
“Did you ever see a flood? It’s uglier than fire and makes a worse smell.

Characterizing at every turn:
“Are you going to pay for the coffee?”
“All right.”
“Good, thank you, I’m saving my pennies.”

Enger exhibits countless other techniques on the pages of this novel. But here's the thing: these admirable examples come from one two-page spread (pp.124-125 in the hardback). Furthermore, this engaging writing springs from one of the most banal set-ups in the modern novel: a conversation in a coffee shop.

Could you find ways to add small sparks of fire to your prose in an equally concentrated fashion? See if you can think of a way to add one or two more sparks to every page of your manuscript. While changes in publishing have thrown much standard advice into question, I can assure you of one enduring truth: no author will ever fail to benefit from raising the literary quality of his or her chosen genre.

Care to share a sentence from your own work that exhibits a little spark of fire?

Kathryn Craft is an author of women's fiction and memoir who specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Here are two pieces from a short story I wrote a few years ago called "Underground":

    "Lara followed Bo out of the tent and joined a younger boy and girl playing a virtual game with laser paddles. Lara couldn’t remember their names, but their smiles were welcoming. She was Bo’s apprentice, after all. An older boy reclined on a sun lounger engrossed in a hand-held computer game. Lara knew he was responsible for the potatoes she and Bo had been preparing moments earlier. Potatoes grew beautifully underground. They just needed a little light. He caught her eye and winked before his expression turned blank again."

    "As if on cue, a man in squeaking-new fishing gear ambled up. Lara hardly recognised Jack, a former Private who had fallen for a pro-birthing woman and defected. He lifted a hand in greeting but busied himself with something in one of the cars: the fake one. Guarding it, as Bo guarded Hope."

  2. Here's three sentences, the first two just to set the scene quickly:

    She parted the canvas flaps and entered the tent. The carnival faded to the background. The air felt thicker inside: dim lights, strange music, and a huge bucket of teeth near the door.

  3. Thanks for playing, Elle! "Underground"—an interesting title. Is it post-apocalyptic, by any chance? Are these people living underground? It was hard to pick up the context from this excerpt.

  4. Janice: Oh my gosh, this got me giggling!! What a spark: "a huge bucket of teeth by the door"! Hahaha—now that will tip a reader into your story!

  5. I try to 'spark' my sentences ... I just hope readers don't want to burn my books.

  6. Haha, Christopher! Humor is another great way to add a spark to a sentence, and your comment proves it.. ;)

  7. Hmmm. Now I feel the need to go back through my WIP, looking for sparks.

  8. LD: And then add more! Luckily, it's fun.

  9. This comes at a perfect time for me as I am going through my latest book to find places to add the spark. Thanks for those great examples.

  10. You're welcome, Maryann. Thanks for reading! This is one of those techniques you can apply by randomly flipping through the manuscript and picking a page. Does it pull you right in, despite the lack of context? If not, add more spark!

  11. Good post, Kathryn, and interesting quotations!

  12. Hi Kathryn,

    It's speculative fiction; it's about an underground revolution. It's a bit hard to provide context in a short piece since the story as a whole is intended to make the reader question what happened to drive these people "underground". But, yes, they are literally and metaphorically living underground. ;-)

    Love yours, Janice.

  13. Thanks, Dani.

    Elle: Thanks for fleshing that out! It sounds like an interesting concept.

  14. The following is from the first chapter of my "thriller" WIP.

    Tom and Kimberly Peyton laughed and clapped while two-year-old Taryn swayed to the music, mimicking every step the teenagers took. The couple seemed oblivious to the fact that their unlikely union should never have taken place, and the beautiful, blonde toddler, by all rights, should be dead.

  15. Linda: Wow, that was a bold sentence! More like flames than sparks! The trick after a sentence like that is...can you keep it up? :)

  16. Kathryn, this is from the sequel to a book I published a couple years ago. The scene takes place at a barbecue shortly after the rescue of four kidnap victims. The father and toddler, along with two teenagers—children of the local prosecutor, had been held captive by a mentally disturbed kidnapper bent on their never again seeing the light of day. The story begins just weeks after the conclusion of the first book.

  17. Kathryn,

    Excellent concept. As writers, especially those of mystery novels, we are commanded to put the body in the first paragraph or first chapter to hook the reader. Why not trust a well-crafted sentence to entice the audience?

    I would, however, warn about the use of adverbs to do the hooking: " find Glendon uneasily drinking coffee..." from your examples. I'm the first to break rules, but this is a big one. The reason we don't rely on adverbs is that they "tell," not "show." I don't know what "uneasily drinking" means.

    Other than that, it's good to see you bring up the use of micro-hooks. Anyone can dump a body.

  18. Hey, I'm just excited to learn that Leif Enger has a new book out! Love, love, love the way that guy writes. ;-)

  19. Thanks for reading, Linda! You'll love this one as well.

    Dane: Thanks for your comment! I know of the admonition to not overuse adverbs if you can instead choose a better verb—that makes a lot of sense— but I don't know of any rule against adverb usage.

    I believe this does "show" Glendon, drinking coffee uneasily. Our narrator can tell that at a glance. The fact that we must move to the next sentence to find out is what I find so intriguing: Enger has raised a question (What has made Glendon whom we have come to care for, uneasy?) and we'll keep reading to find an answer.

    I think Enger's use of the made up word "hitchingly"—also an adverb—is also evocative. So it's not really a matter of show don't tell in this case.

    No literary police will come out and arrest you for using adverbs (although the people in your critique group might, since they are easy to comment upon). Judge their use on a case by case basis. The main thing is to use rich, evocative language—and Enger's fits that bill.


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