Every writer has to find their voice in order to put the words down on the page. Otherwise those words are just a jumble running around inside of the authors head, slowly driving them insane. I know this for a fact because I was one of those individuals with ideas in my head that I wanted to share with the world, but when I tried to put them down on paper they seem to come out as pathetic and flat. I never seemed to be able to express myself the way I wanted to.
Then I discovered a company called the Teaching Company. And before you go chalking this off as a shameless advertisement for the company, I will tell you that I have no connection to them other than buying some of their products. The Teaching company specializes in recording college professors’ lectures on DVD and audio. Then selling them to the general public at a fraction of the cost of actually attending those schools. Of course you say that you don’t get the college credit for taking the courses, but what does that matter if you are doing it for personal betterment like I did.
The course I watched was Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft. I was amazed by what I learned. I discovered the true power of the sentence, how to give incredible detail without it sounding like some boring list of facts, and how to bring about suspense with relative ease. Below are two examples of the first paragraph from Chapter One of A Love Beyond Time to illustrate the change brought about by understanding the power of the sentence. The first is the original version I wrote years ago while struggling to find my voice as a writer.
The deck swayed and bucked beneath my feet in the cramped corner of the hold. It smells of damp wood and a musty rotten odor that I can’t quite place but pervades everything in the ship’s hold. The crates are piled high around me with only a narrow aisle leading from my little nook that has been my prison since they dragged me aboard. These were the quarters I had been put in, if you could even call them that; they seemed to be more of an after thought.
The second is the completed form found in the now published A Love Beyond Time.
The wooden deck shifts beneath his feet, the planks creaking and popping, being twisted by the swaying and bucking of the ship, as it rides the crests and troughs of each successive wave, those waves crashing with ever increasing frequency. He stands, in the small cramped cubby hole, leaning against the beam, struggling with each wave to stay standing, the coarse wood of the weathered beam digging into his hands. A square iron lantern, his only source of light, with the hatches above secured against the growing storm, the crisscrossing bars holding the glass in place, a heavy opaque glass, its iron ring hanging from the hook embedded into one of the ship’s heavy timbers, feeble shines in the darkness. With each successive wave the lantern swings to and fro, casting its light on an ever-changing scene in the darkened hold, revealing his surroundings to be glimpsed ever so briefly, swinging forward shining on the narrow crate lined aisle leading to the ladder for the deck above, its rungs hidden in the pitch black beyond the lights reach, the wooden crates variously sized and shaped, flowing off into the impenetrable gloom, bending back to the right exposing the ships hull, through the gaps in the high piled canvas bags, stuffed to the bursting point, under their rope netting, the wooden planks seeming to shudder with the colliding of each wave, arcing forward to the left unmasking from the shadows looming stacks of barrels, heavy ropes securing the stacks to the deck, the barrels shifting within their embrace with each heave and roll of the deck, hooking back around into the nook exposing him under its light once again.
The changes that I made are quite obvious, like how I changed the perspective from first person to third. And how the first example lacks detail. It is flat on the page with no life of its own, which leads to the most striking difference, the level of detail. I found that using cumulative syntax I could expand the sentences and make them tell a story of their own. The story it tells is what the man’s surroundings are, but not in a static list of descriptions. I use the lantern’s motion to do the act of revealing. That sentence has a hundred and fifty-eight words in it, but it flows well. You’re probably thinking that is a long sentence, but you would be wrong. I have actually written longer sentences and so have many other authors. The length of the sentence is not what really matters, its what you are trying to say with it. I struggled with the saying part, but now it’s like a whole new world has been revealed to me.
In the end I believe the money I spent was well worth it. I honestly don’t think I would have ever finished A Love Beyond Time without it. And the best part is that if I ever need to review something, all I have to do is pop the disc in my DVD player and watch it.
By Dante Craddock