Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Lesson 1: Compelling Sentences Follow-up

Greetings, writers! Welcome back for Week 2. If you’re just joining Phantom Professor's Online Writing Workshop, scroll down to Assignment 1 and Quiz 1 and it won’t be hard to catch up. New writers are free to join anytime.

Let’s talk about your first homework -- those compelling sentences. As I write this, more than 250 of you have posted sentences. In a normal academic year I wouldn’t teach more than 80 or 100 students, so I am floored and bumfuzzled and thoroughly chuffed by the response so far. Hope most of you stick with it to the end, although some attrition is to be expected. Just don’t get frustrated if I don’t pick your work for discussion. Trying to one-on-one coach this many writers would give me a bad case of the vapors and send me to bed for a week. I will answer questions via email if you don't pester me with trivia you could look up yourself.

OK, the good stuff first. Here are the sentences I found so utterly original and compelling that I would not hesitate to read the stories or books that follow them (authors’ names in parentheses):

I used to carry a purple crayon. (Chris) This one just opened up so many possibilities. Is it a children’s story? Or could it be a cop who next says, “Now I carry a gun.” Simple, direct and interesting. I’d definitely keep reading.

She knew that one day these children would kill her. (Jeanrhys) Funny. Or maybe the opening of a mystery. Piques my interest.

My pants were stuck to me like Saran wrap on pudding. (superholmie) Come on, that’s about as original a simile as I’ve ever come across. I’ll keep reading any writer who hints at a warped sense of humor.

Contrary to popular belief, Tarzan is not Jewish. (Alex Bensky) Which is why they had to cut his loincloth a little longer, right? This opener reminds me of the humor of a nearly forgotten writer named Alexander King, who used to be on The Jack Paar Show. Strange and funny, this one.

Forget sex; depression sells. (anonymous) Excellent. Four words, one correctly placed semicolon. Usually I’m strictly anti-semicolon, but this one provides the pause that refreshes. Makes me eager to read the whole story.

Brian could clearly hear the thoughts of the passengers in the plane flying overhead. (Mr. Bee) Like the start of a good Twilight Zone episode, this one hints at a terrific ride ahead.

She left in a huff and a sportscar. (Social Bill) OK, it’s perilously close to being glib and cutesy. But it’s also close enough to James Ellroy to keep me reading.

Daddy and I went to see the runners. (Ted K) Again, a writer uses just a few simple words to set a story in motion. Short leads really grab me. And this one has a sort of down-home voice that I like immediately.

The last time I was at my sister's, I vomited in her fish tank. (Maggie) I'll wager this sentence has never been written in any book anywhere. But read it and you can’t help hoping the next sentence will tell you why the poor guppies got urped on.

The first time I saw him, he was looking the other way. (bitchphd) A tight, cinematic opener.

Our mother wasn’t the kind you went looking for if she went missing. (Zuleme) Right away, you know there’s a good story in this. I like the confessional, conversational tone, too.

They say that things happen for a reason, but what they don't tell you is that sometimes it's a pretty piss-poor excuse for a reason. (wmr) Ditto comments from Zuleme’s entry just above.

Last Tuesday I had a devoted husband, a cute house in Alexandria, and I had never killed anybody. (Marion Price) I might rewrite it slightly because that serial comma bothers me and I don't think you need that second "I." But the surprise of those last four words provides a zinger that really sparks my interest in the rest of the tale.

The cats had been acting peculiar for a week when it began. (katee) Makes me eager to know what “it” is.

Fuck modesty. (Oubliette) Two words establish a point of view and a personality. Fuck wordiness.

The trees were walking. (celandine) Drug nightmare? Post-apocalyptic mutation of nature? Can’t wait to find out.

"Even though you'll have to kill me, tell me." (hyperbolic) Interesting twist on the cliché. And because it’s dialogue, I’m intrigued to read whatever conversation follows this opener.

There are hundreds of good places to hide a body on a space station, which was why Tess only had to deal with it when someone panicked or failed an intelligence test. (Kevin) The longest of the entries that I liked, but one that sets up a good mystery. And “Tess” already has a world-weariness that would make her a character worth getting to know. What score warrants the death sentence on the intelligence test?

Good work, everyone!

Now, about those comma splices. Lots of the sentences actually should have been two (or more) sentences. By connecting two separate sentences with the comma, you created a comma splice. Short sentences are fine. Slice and dice. When you find yourself on the twelfth or twenty-fifth word and you haven’t hit the period key yet, do.

As you can see from my choices above, I dig terse, direct, quirky writing. I think readers do, too. Recently I was doing a little research on the chick-lit that is getting published right now. I thumbed through a dozen new titles and was unimpressed by the opening sentences of most of them. (Someone, please parse the first sentence of The Devil Wears Prada. It makes no freakin' sense at ALL.) I ended up spending $13 on a book titled Nice Girls Finish First (by Alesia Holliday) because it begins with this: “It’s hard to meet nice guys when you sell sex toys for a living.” Now that’s a AA-battery grabber if I ever met one.

Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction that you’re working on, you should pay special attention to your lead (or “lede” as we old-time journo-types still refer to it). This week, as you’re reading newspapers, magazines or books, take note of how the author jumps in.

Now jump down to the next post to find this week’s Lesson 2 and your Assignment 2.


Blogger Lizett! said...

Just something to follow up on last weeks word usage exercise. I'm a big fan of McSweeney's magazine, and I'm posting a link to hilarious article that will also help you remember your style.

11:27 PM  
Anonymous John Brownlee said...

"Slice and dice when you find yourself on the twelfth or twentieth word and you haven’t hit the period key yet."

Ironically, that sentence has 21 words. I also think it's bad advice to say "If your sentence is longer than this, time to cut". The issue isn't a sentence's length - it is the clarity of the meaning and the intent of the prose. Of course, you can't teach a student to have good literary judgement, which is why these sort of questionable rules of thumb get passed around to begin with. It seems to me that most creative writing courses end up being all about teaching bad writers to be stomachable (if not particularly compelling), as opposed to teaching decent writers to be good. In that case, yeah - "bad writers, keep it short and direct, for god's sakes" is great advice. But for everyone else, you might want to add a "consider" in that sentence somewhere.

4:56 AM  
Blogger kitty said...

"Here are the sentences I found so utterly original and compelling that I would not hesitate to read the stories or books that follow them."

Hmmmm, are you saying you would not read past the first sentence if it wasn't "utterly original and compelling"?

I'll agree that that first sentence can set the tone for the rest of the story/book, but I've also read some ho-hum openers and absolutely loved the rest.
"Petrograd smelt of carbolic acid" is not a grabber, but Ayn Rand's We The Living was still a great read.

8:01 AM  
Anonymous not a tree hugger said...

I think what Elaine is telling us is that 'These are the sentences I like.' and well if you're not a left wing liberal 'quirky' (meaning a little on the squirrelly side like her) writer, well then, thanks for playing. I can only imagine that her writing classes at SMU were all about learning to write things the way she enjoys to read them... no wonder her blog made fun of many of her students!

9:28 AM  
Anonymous andy said...

Wow, are people actually going to be bitter about not being chosen?

I wasn't (recount!) - and I disagree with maybe half of what was selected (although I think the one about not looking for the mother is terrific).

Do you think she's going to pick stuff she doesn't like? Do you think any writing teacher would?

"You know, Jimmy, this piece of writing positively sucks, but I like it. What can I say? I'm an enigma."

For inspiration, consider that Dan Brown has made millions by being a very mediocre writer. There's hope for us all!

9:44 AM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

Dear Not a Tree Hugger:
Bitter much? Lighten up or don't come to class. You are the reason so many professors drink in the afternoons.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Sorry, I'm late, prof. Here's my entry for the first assignment:

I gave up a family, a career, and a cat for a
chance to play the game.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Yvette said...

Hehe, I liked the last paragraph of this post. In all honesty, last week I went to the bookstore to read the first sentences of my faovorite books and was kind of surprised by some of them! It was definetely interesting.
For the record, the best one I found was from Kingsolver's The Bean Trees, "I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine's father over the top of the Standard Oil sign." It's an utterly wonderful line.

12:24 PM  
Anonymous John Brownlee said...

"When you find yourself on the twelfth or twenty-fifth word and you haven’t hit the period key yet, do."

Is this silent edit really any less arbitrary than the "twenty one" word variation I posted about above? A couple paragraphs down, this sentence has twenty six words: "Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction that you’re working on, you should pay special attention to your lead (or “lede” as we old-time journo-types still refer to it)." And yet it's a strong sentence that clearly gets its meaning across.

I'm not trying to be a dick. I'm not bitter - while my sentence wasn't chosen, it only had five words, so this isn't a vendetta against a perceived criticism of my style. But the point is that there is no hard-fast rule on acceptable word count in sentences, yet your advice is presented as authoritarian. It would really be much better advice if it said something like "While a sentence's worth can only be judged by the clarity of its meaning and how it emotionally affects the reader, consider hitting the period after about twelve-twenty-five words if you're not sure what you're going for." That's advice I could get behind.

12:39 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

Look, I was strictly addressing FIRST SENTENCES OF STORIES, leads, intros. Long ones typically bore a reader.

Sheesh. Stop bugging me about this.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous John Brownlee said...

Right - which is why you were so concerned about contradicting yourself that you silently edited the post to change the "twenty" to "twenty five" after I pointed out the discrepancy. Why would you have done that if you were only talking about first sentences? Why didn't you just say so then? And if you truly are saying that first sentences should always be under twenty five words, why is one of your favorite sentences 31 words long?

Give me a break. You're just back pedaling here and getting huffy because you know your universal rule here (there is not a single conditional in what you expressed) is completely bogus.

Don't worry your pretty head. I'm not going to sully any more of your comment sections with anything that might perceived to be an actual exchange of ideas, so you won't be hearing from me again. But it's really funny to me that you would get so shrill and hysterical when all I was trying to do was suggest that you shouldn't state a guideline like that as a hard-fast rule, as you did. Not that your reaction surprises me - most professors get into the field because they like pontification, not actual discussion, which threatens them. Luckily, most universities are today are the last bastion for the haughty and uncritical. Still, I kind of hoped that you'd be as open to criticism as you expect your students to be. Apparently not. Can't wait to see the advice on the rest of the course!

1:40 PM  
Blogger Me said...

Give the prof a break, already. The concepts given are generalizations. Do you expect an intricate criticism of each submission, along with an encyclopedic index on notable exceptions to the rules of writing? It's a free course, generously donated by the blogger. Shouldn't those with some sort of writing background be patient and read through the rules we know are bendable, not waste time bickering about them?

1:58 PM  
Anonymous kelly said...

and i thought when i was a peer tutor, my kids were bad.

i'm sorry prof.

as someone who just graduated college last year, i wonder how many taking this "class" are fresh out of an english department like myself?

or are people older and i'm the kid?

i find those who are older take things way out of hand when it comes to critisim or lack of favorable treatment.

so my sentence wasn't picked. boo-hoo. it's like a real class. it's life. and it's no big deal. i'm here because i want to learn to write better, and not bitch and complain that someone in internet land didn't like my writing enough.

professors aren't there to boost egos.

~kelly s.

2:26 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

Dear John Brownlee (the snarky poster):
Having you pick apart every sentence I write doesn't do you, me or anyone else a service. I am simply sharing what I know from two decades of experience as a writer, editor and teacher. Are you trying to prove that you're smarter than the average bear? I'm trying to provide something here for people who have grown frustrated with their writing. I know some good stuff. I like teaching it. If you don't like the way I teach, I happily refund your tuition.

4:06 PM  
Anonymous handworn said...

I'd bet people like that are the reason many umpires drink a lot, too. I'm always amazed at how little people acknowledge the longer-term perspective-- as though they were going to quit playing baseball because the ump called a ball a strike or vice-versa. To "Not A" and "John" I'd say this:

Maybe she's right, maybe she's not right, but until you make it to the end of the class what place do you have to say? You'll never make it that far, or learn anything, while your ego is in the way.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Small Town Heart said...

May I pretend that I actually overheard these comments as conversation and submit them as my homework for Lesson 2...? :)

4:44 PM  
Anonymous wmr said...

I was surprised to see my entry among so many that were more creative. As a matter of craft, that 'conversational tone' did take some work. I made several revisions before I was happy with the way it sounded.

6:32 PM  
Blogger birddog said...

If you don't like the music change the station. Although if your sentence didn't get picked it probably sucked (as did mine). You should really think about hanging around for a while. Agreeing was not a pre-requisite nor was it in the syllabus. Not being a baby should have been.

7:31 PM  
Blogger still life said...

I didn't submit a sentence or join class, but that doesn't stop me from an opinion.
What a wonderful idea this blog is, that someone is so giving of their time.
Appreciate it without infringing on everyone elses learning process with this nonproductive bickering.
If you can't handle the fact that your forhead is without a gold star then pack up your books and go elsewhere.

10:43 PM  
Anonymous not a tree hugger said...

Dear Prof:
Get laid much? If students cause profs to drink, who's fault really is that?

11:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it kosher to ask what other sentences, if any, caught the eye of our class members?

11:57 PM  
Anonymous val said...

After my first teaching experience last semester (as a TA), I can attest to how disheartening it is to find out how little students appreciate the efforts of teachers. This is a FREE online seminar people, how can you complain?

As for sentence length, I agree that long sentences are tiresome, more often than not. Sometimes my attention span wanes in between the beginning and the end of the sentence. I then find myself needing to re-read the whole sentence because I feel like I missed the point. This effect gives me the impression that the writer is trying to prove something about his own attention span or intelligence, at the expense of making me doubt mine. Mind you, this is only for super long sentences; more than a mere 25 words. But some of the sentences that were posted in the first exercise looked like entire paragraphs. Guess what? I skipped those ones.

I also think sentance and sentence should be added to the list of commonly confused word pairs.

12:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"those ones"?????

12:11 AM  
Anonymous val said...

Hey anonymous, I don't need you to tell me my writing isn't perfect. I know it's not. That's why I'm here. If you're going to point out someone elses mistake, you should tell them how to correct it. Otherwise you look like nothing more than a bitter, angry, insecure, anonymous internet troll.

12:17 AM  
Blogger kitty said...

For those who are unhappy right now, you can always take one of these online writing courses ... for a nice fee.

8:52 AM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

If I'd had the time and space, I could have chosen 25 or 30 sentences that had possibilities. The work you guys posted knocked me out. Don't be discouraged and don't get your knickers in a bunch if yours didn't make the list. This isn't a contest.

And for those who think my lessons are "bogus," remember, I've been teaching sophomore and junior-level college kids who write and read like 10th-graders. I realize some of you are waaaaay beyond the baby steps. But there's a little something for everyone, I hope. And just the act of doing the exercises and reading some of the links might spur a new idea or get you working on something.

And to answer the question from "hugger" -- plenty. And go look up how to use "whose" and "who's."

As inspiration this morning, I'm reading some Joan Didion before I have to start work.

Later, taters.

9:16 AM  
Blogger kitty said...


10:22 AM  
Anonymous not a tree hugger said...

Point taken... It’s best not to criticize if I can't even use the proper grammar.
P.S. I have no qualms about not being selected, I just didn’t think ‘quirky’ should be one of the requirements of good writing, though I may be over-generalizing your statement. My apologies if I have. Congrats? on your active sex life.

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Leslie in CA said...

Isn't it great fun to pontificate while declaiming against pontification? Not to mention being haughty and shrill while accusing others of haughtiness and shrillness. Yep, nothing like a little hypocrisy for providing real rhetorical satisfaction.

Those with their knickers in a twist might try, oh, growing up, getting over themselves, something along those lines. I am simply grateful that the Professor is willing to so generously share (her? Sorry, Professor, are you gender-specific? Methinks you are, but I am a new reader and hence uncertain) years of expertise.

6:52 PM  
Blogger ZombieKiller said...

Damn. My sentence wasn't chosen. Now I must insult someone and then die.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Beltane said...

lol zombie :)

Mine wasn't either, but I am not writing a zinger to sell a novel, I chose to write a background story for one of my characters in my screenplay. Besides, no one cares about pregnant moms in danger anyway, it's too banal! :D

I for one, am finding this interesting and fun. Thanks Prof!

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great site, the opening sentences/words brought a much-needed smile to my face tonight. Thanks, Prof (.... wish you had been teaching when I was there!).

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