Tuesday, August 25, 2009

'You Have to Learn the Beat'

'I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing--the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words. If the moment of quickening is to come, it comes at the level of the paragraph. It is a marvelous and flexible instrument that can be a single word long or run on for pages (one paragraph in Don Robertson's historical novel Paradise Falls is sixteen pages long; there are paragraphs in Ross Lockridge's Raintree Country which are nearly that). You must learn to use it well if you are to write well. What this means is lots of practice; you have to learn the beat.'
--from On Writing--A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King. For many years, King championed Cleveland author Don Robertson. In 1987, King's Philtrum Press published Robertson's novel, The Ideal, Genuine Man. Before launching his fiction career, Robertson worked at all three major Cleveland papers, the News, Press and Plain Dealer. He died in 1999.


At 9:34 AM, Anonymous Donna said...

I think in forming our paragraphs, we have go with what feels right. That comes with being a reader and knowing intuitively when enough is enough.

Apparently, back in the olden days English teachers told their students never to have a paragraph with a single sentence.

When I moved out of print journalism into the corporate world, I ran into people who still believed that was a writing rule and would ask me to change things I had written so I didn't break the rule.

I almost put quote marks around the world rule, but now I'm a little paranoid about the overuse of quote marks. Must have been something I read somewhere.

At 10:06 AM, Blogger Kim said...

John, I think this goes back to the mini conversation we had about Twitter. Twitter is not for writers, because there is no way to get out an idea in under 140 characters.

I simply don't know any short stories, or so my family has been telling me for years.

(and LOL @ Donna's fear of overusing quotes!)

At 10:17 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Professionals run into a million so-called writing "rules" that people learned at the foot of their (generally non-writing) English teachers, and never forgot. My favorite is the supposedly ironclad rule against beginning any sentence with the word "and." Some people seem to think doing that will get them retroactively kicked out of school.

As for Twitter, as I pointed out in that earlier comment section back and forth, Kim, I don't think using Twitter by itself constitutes writing, but I do hold open the possibility that I'll possibly use it at some point to more widely distribute my work and/or pearls of wisdom, if I can ever come up with any. As it happens, Donna, who has been a professional writer for many years, does just that. So perhaps she can explain to us why she sees value in it.

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Zephyros said...

I would respectfully disagree with both Mr. King and with Kim:

If words are atomic, sentences are molecular and thus these are the basic building blocks. King undermines his own argument when he says that a paragraph can be a single word, granting that unit the power he wishes to ascribe to the paragraph.

I like what he says about beats, however, and about "the quickening".

And to Kim, I'd have to say some ideas should be limited to 140 characters! Great quips and the shortest of short stories (witness the enormous popularity of 6-word stories in recent years) challenge writers to maximize ideas with an economy of language, which this post of mine is clearly lacking!

(aka Jack Finnegan)

At 10:27 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for visiting, Jack. I believe you're a first-time commenter, so a special welcome to you. That's an interesting perspective. As some readers know, I don't necessarily agree with all the excerpts I post here, sometimes putting them up mostly to prompt the kind of debate we have beginning here. When it comes to the debate over sentences vs. paragraphs being the core building blocks, I guess I'm a little agnostic. But both King's take and yours have made me think about this issue today. The main payoff to that passage for me was indeed the last sentence, about learning the beat, which always resonates with me (a fallen-away piano student, in first grade!). I think writing is a lot like playing the piano--you first get the scales down so you can play them in your sleep, before going on to the more complicated and sophisticated parts of the craft. Anyway, I hope you'll keep coming back, and joining the conversation when the spirit moves you.

At 10:30 AM, Anonymous Donna said...

John, Kim and whoever else cares why I use Twitter:

It never was a tool for perfecting writing. It's a place I go to connect with people in and around the deeper connections I make here.

Last night, I was upset about something. I wanted to see if my indignation was righteous or just plain me being an impatient brat.

Three gentlemen came to my defense and one even gave me a contact name that may prove useful in the future. It's about sharing information and sometimes it takes a few successive Tweets to get the thought out.

John, you should try it. You might find it useful for professional contacts.

I will say I've tried to curtail my Tweeting over the last several months. It can suck you in.

And, John, I hate that rule about starting a sentence with and too!

At 10:34 AM, Blogger Kim said...

I must clarify. I reluctantly use Twitter, and remain overwhelmed. (FreshGreenKim is my handle). I see the potential for marketing my writing, so I'm trying to utilize it. I cannot tell you how many times Twitter has "cut me off".

So my disdain may only be a function of the fact that Twitter keeps telling me to hush. (John never does.)

At 10:37 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I may well try Twittering sometime, but for now, as I think I've mentioned here, and I know I've mentioned to you offline, Linkedin is my tool of choice for much of that, and it's performed marvelously. Thus, I've felt less need to rely on Twitter than I otherwise might have.

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece today on social networking burnout. As I read it, I thought, "I don't suffer from that, because I pick my spots, and confine all of my social networking to this blog and Linkedin. If I were also Twittering and doing Facebook, I would feel plenty burned out too. I'm a BIG believer in the notion that our lives and careers are marathons rather than sprints, so I try to pace myself accordingly.


At 10:38 AM, Anonymous Donna said...

Hah, hah, Kim, I feel your pain. I just carry the thought over into more than one Tweet if I can make the point in 140 characters. Sometimes no matter how many times you eliminate all verbs and write in vanity plate style, it's impossible to get it all out in 140 characters. People who like you will go through the effort to find the separate sections and respond. I'm DonnaMMiller on Twitter, BTW.

At 10:40 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Happy tweeting, you two. And Kim, we'd never for a second think of shushing you. Quite the contrary.

At 12:23 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Twitter? Pfah. Another tool of the shortening attention span. I already get told that I'm too long-winded by my (non-writing) peers, if only because I like to use enough words to be clear about what I want to say. Not every experience in life can be reduced to an aphorism or slogan. Lots of things in life can be expressed via haiku, but haiku are allusive and often indirect, so while the form suits Twitter, most folks are literal rather than lateral thinkers, and haiku would no doubt go right past them, unless made blunt and obvious and sophomoric. So I'm indifferent. I'm not even contemptuous of Twitter: that would be giving it too much of my attention.

As for Stephen King, I found his "On Writing" to be a terrific book, full of good stories and insights. I was a little surprised I would like this book so much, or find it so rewarding and fun to read. But indeed I did.

I actually agree with King here: the paragraph as the basic unit. Because what King is getting at is the flexible form of the thought-unit, which can be shorter or longer. Arguing that the sentence is the molecular length of speech, and the word the atomic length is wrong, precisely because neither molecules or atoms are ALIVE in themselves. It is when they organize and encapsulate into larger forms—cells, mitochondria, etc.—that life happens. Free-floating protein molecules are not considered alive even by molecular biologists. Active, certainly, but not alive. (The debate about whether viruses, which are encapsulated engines for reproducing their own RNA and DNA strands, are actually living organisms or not remains unsettled.)

Writing comes to life in the paragraph length, because paragraphs are the lengths of a connected thought-series. Paragraphs are cellular, and thus alive.

At 1:31 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Art, you've zeroed in on the chief thing about Twitter that concerns me, and the biggest reason that I've decided not to take part, at least for now: I'm dead set against doing anything that would contribute, even in a tiny way, to people's ever-shrinking attention spans. That's becoming an increasingly severe problem.

On the other hand, I've been closely watching how some very smart, strategic people and fine writers have been using it simply to alert people to links containing great long-form narrative writing, the kind we both like, so that's convinced me not to blame tools and platforms (such as blogs or Twitter) for the behavior of its users, and that used right, they can be in service of some very beneficial things. Owing to my concerns I've just outlined, I just won't use it until I know I won't be part of the problem.

As for King, like many writerly purists such as you, I presume, I had a visceral dislike of him for many years, dismissing him as a genre thriller hack. While I had seen a handful of movies spun out of his books, I wouldn't have been caught dead reading any of them.

But then (again, like many purist writers, I assume) I had cause to reconsider him and his work, after he wrote an eye-opening piece in the New Yorker in 2000 about his near-brush with death (link below). As near-death experiences tend to do, that caused him to reconsider everything, and that wonderful piece prompted me to reconsider him. His writing memoir came out soon after, and I heard so many admiring comments about it, even from longtime King haters, that I eventually read it. And like you, I found it simply marvelous, possibly among the best half dozen books on the writing craft I've ever encountered. I'll be pulling out some additional excerpts from it in coming weeks.


At 2:07 PM, Blogger Zephyros said...

My analogy may have been inapt, but I wonder, Art, why the qualities you and Stephen King ascribe to paragraphs--the "flexible form of the thought-unity" and the "place where coherence begins" wouldn't apply directly to sentences?

Hemingway wrote devastating sentences which carry an impact without need for any paragraph. And Falukner, his stylistic opposite, will sometimes bury a gem of a sentence in the lengthiest of paragraphs which will stop me in my tracks.

I realize this last opens me to a countercharge that Faulkner's paragraph is what grants the sentence value, but this isn't always true.

~Jack Finnegan

At 2:13 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I think Jack has nicely highlighted why, as I said earlier, I'm agnostic on whether sentences or paragraphs are the prime building blocks. The toughest thing of all is to link them all together into a narrative flow that drives the thought forward, over many pages, chapters, whatever it might be. And if either your sentences or paragraphs don't do that, you're just as dead in the water either way.

But I'm enjoying this exchange of ideas in any event, and hope it will continue, with lots of other input from others as well.

At 3:59 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Actually, I've read several of King's books, just to see what the fuss was all about. Here's my thoughts: I think King is capable of writing The Great American Novel . . . if only he had the right editor. But no one dares to edit him, because he always writes best-sellers. If you read the first 50 or 80 pages of each of his novels, you get this amazingly detailed, thoughtful, brilliant portrayal of small-town average folks living their ordinary lives. It's only when things turn supernatural that King loses me, and I flip to the last 25 pages to see how it all comes out. The middle parts are avoidable. But if King could, as he did with some of his short stories, be limited to writing only "realistic" fiction (make no mistake: that's just another kind of genre, not a lack of genre) about small-town life, he'd be acclaimed to the stars, because he's really good at that.

My hesitation at reading "On Writing" was because I was afraid it would be self-indulgent or mawkish. Instead, it has many of the good features that King's near-death experience brought to his life and fiction: clarity, simplicity, and a sense of what really does matter in life.

Well done, Stephen!

At 4:12 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You've said a mouthful, Art, as always. Maybe the most important thing you said is that you read him just to see what all the fuss was about. How often we sometimes dismiss things without first investigating them. Good for you. In my case, it took a piece in the New Yorker--which might be thought of as Ground Zero for his detractors--to open my eyes. I should have given him a chance earlier, for the reasons you nicely outline, his detailed grasp of small towns. I should have givne him a chance for no other reason than we both love Maine--his native state but for me an adopted love.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I'll argue for the paragraph precisely because it does carry a devastating impact, just as a sentence can. You see, a great sentence can indeed be a one-sentence paragraph. I agree with that.

I'm agnostic about Faulkner, always have been.

John's point about narrative flow is a good one, the linking together of parts into a greater weave. But that linking-together is what paragraphs do, structurally, that sentences don't. This is basic units-of-grammar stuff, folks. What is a paragraph? A section of unified topic, action, or thought, broken when it's time to start a new thought-unit, to separate it from the current one. Paragraphs change direction. There are run-on paragraphs that embrace many thought-units just as there are run-on sentences that don't know when to stop. Yes, this can all be done with a one-sentence paragraph: but that's still a paragraph, ennit.

Here are a couple of examples that might demonstrate why the paragraph IS the basic unit of writing.

One of Robert Parker's early Spenser novels contains a fight sequence at its climax that "breaks style" with the rest of the novel, which is written in the usual post-Hemingway, post-Chandler sort of style: occasionally terse, often a bit skewed towards short paragraphs and semaphoric sentences. But then during this fight sequence the writing becomes stream-of-action (or consciousness) and opens up into long sentences and a single huge paragraph that describes the entire fight scene across two or three pages. It's amazing how this affects one as a reader, transforming your usual detective novel into something much more, if you will, Faulknerian. It works very well, as literature.

But that's my point: the paragraph is the basic unit of writing because the paragraph, short or long, represents unit of thought, or coherent segment of action. It reflects one person speaking, then a new paragraph represents another.

Look at Joyce's paragraphs in "Ulysses"—they exactly match the state of mind of the character whose viewpoint we are inhabiting, expanding and contracting both for psychological effect, and as a reflection of Bloom's or Stephen's state of mind.

There is nothing at all remotely arbitrary about the varying length of paragraphs that do this. You can't chop them up into smaller, equally-coherent sections.

If you COULD chop up such paragraphs into smaller, equally-coherent sections, without losing the overall effect and tone, then the argument that sentence is the basic smallest unit would be correct. But since such paragraphs cannot be reduced without being damaged, they are therefore the smallest basic unit of writing. If a paragraph cannot be arbitrarily dismantled without losing coherence, then it must be the basic unit of thought. (Let's not even get into Language Poetry's arguments about the atomization of words and sentences, etc., which are mostly anti-meaning anyway.)

As for Hemingway, it's only a myth that he always wrote short sentences and paragraphs. He is often held up, as you do, for this example. That's because many of the sentences one holds up as having had a devastating impact are ALSO paragraphs. Like the shortest verse in the Bible: "Jesus wept." That's a single sentence AND a single paragraph. You can't break it down from there.

But if you read Hemingway carefully, you see his paragraph functions the same way as Joyce's, or Parker's, as the smallest unit of action or thought. Hemingway could write very long paragraphs, too—such as in "Big Two-Hearted River"—and very long sentences full of lots of subordinate clauses with virtually no punctuation just like this sentence I'm writing right now—as in "The Old Man and the Sea."

it's just that Hemingway knew when to break for a new paragraph. Which is what King is saying.

BTW, none of this has anything to do with poetry, of course. But then, King was talking about prose fiction, not poetry. Different kettles of fish. Different "rules" apply.

At 4:25 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Nothing like a good late-afternoon tutorial, Art. Thanks. I've just printed it out for closer study and enjoyment this evening.

At 10:14 PM, Blogger Pat Washington said...

I taught about paragraphs to my middle schoolers in my workshop a few years ago. I taught the the origin of the word, and what it meant. None of this "a paragraph must be 3-5 sentences long and include a topic sentence" crap.

According to Dictionary.com, Paragraph means to "write beside," and was a device used to signal a change.

From http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/paragraph :
[Middle English paragraf, from Old French paragrafe, from Medieval Latin paragraphus, from Greek paragraphos, line showing a break in sense or a change of speakers in a dialogue, from paragraphein, to write beside : para-, beside; see para-1 + graphein, to write; see gerbh- in Indo-European roots.]

Aside from distinguishing a change in thought, I like to use paragraphs simply to break up a chunk of sentences (in appropriate places, of course). And so paragraphs give both the mind and the eyes a break -- a pause before continuing. I don't I really don't like to read huge chunks of text and tend to zone out, unless the writing is VERY good.

At 10:25 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Your line about "none of this topic sentence crap" made me laugh so hard that I was quite happy I wasn't drinking any hot liquids at that moment. What a great addition to the conversation. You've taken an entirely different tack than anyone else has, and in so doing really enriched it. But that's what we've come to expect of you, Pat.

One thing you said about the topic sentence did prompt me to think about one venerable bit of advice about writing good paragraphs, and while it's certainly not a rule, it's nevertheless a good thing to keep in mind: great paragraphs often build up to a kind of crescendo, with an ending that has some sort of surprise, or punch, or just generally something powerful and perhaps unexpected. That can come through a surprising choice of words and/or phrases, through the intrinsic rhythm, or one of a number of other paths. But the brain does tend to remember better how a chunk of text ends, and so skillful writing tends to take advantage of that dynamic.

Anyway, thanks as always for stopping by, Pat. I'm blessed to have you as a reader, and doubly blessed when you comment.

At 8:48 AM, Blogger Pat Washington said...

Oh, John, thanks -- you are kind.

Blessings all around!

At 9:22 AM, Blogger Pat Washington said...

Just had to find this again on Google and post it here. Apparently based on Earnest Hemingway's challenge.


Of course, I DO read longer stories sometimes....

At 9:26 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, Pat. I've seen that a few times also, and always meant to post the link and mention it, but somehow never got around to it. So thanks for the helping hand. I never realized there was a link to Hemingway, though.

At 7:26 PM, Blogger Pat Washington said...

Oops...I mean "Ernest." Wish we could edit our comments.

At 9:17 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Ernest was no doubt earnest.


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