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.