All posts for the month September, 2012

Using a “Read Aloud” as a Revision Tool

Published September 24, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Here’s the exercise I’ve been working on for the past couple of weeks:

1- Choose a few short passages, each by a favorite author, and read them aloud.

2- Choose a passage from your own work and read it aloud. (This exercise works best if you read the passage aloud to someone else.)

3- Revise your passage by improving its fluency and poetic musicality.

I’m writing a short story about a girl who is being bullied, so I chose an excerpt having to do with bullying from The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman as one of my read-aloud passages. Here’s a bit of the excerpt:

“[…] he walked into the tiny churchyard at the end of the road, a miniature graveyard behind the local church, and he waited beside the tomb of Roderick Persson and his wife Amabella, and also his second wife, Portunia (They Sleep to Wake Again).

“You’re that kid,” said a girl’s voice. “Bob Owens. Well, you’re in really big trouble, Bob Owens.”

“It’s Bod, actually,” said Bod, and he looked at them. “With a D. And you’re Jekyll and Hyde.”

“It was you,” said the girl. “You got to the seventh formers.”

“So we’re going to teach you a lesson,” said Nick Farthing, and he smiled without humor.

“I quite like lessons,” said Bod. “If you paid more attention to yours, you wouldn’t have to blackmail younger kids for pocket-money.”

Nick’s brow crinkled. Then he said, “You’re dead, Owens.”

Bod shook his head and gestured around him. “I’m not actually,” he said. “They are.”

“Who are?” said Mo.

“The people in this place,” said Bod.

(From Chapter Six [“Nobody Owens’ School Days”] of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

Several things in this passage caught my attention:

1- the fluency of the dialogue

2- Bod’s courage and cool-as-a cucumber assertiveness

3- the creepiness of the details and the suspense they create

And here’s a bit of my story, revised after reading aloud Chapter Six of The Graveyard Book and after reading aloud my story:

“The day was already becoming uncomfortably warm as Jamie walked to school that morning. Her aunt and uncle had shooed her out of the house before she could grab something to eat and with no lunch or lunch money. Dinner the night before had been only a bowl of Ramen noodles, so she was very hungry. She arrived at school, sped to the cafeteria, and grabbed the students’ allotted serving: a box of sugar-free cereal, a small carton of skim milk, and half a banana. She was grateful that the school served all students free breakfast, even if it was a meager one. As she hurried with her tray toward her usual table – the one farthest away from Bullina’s crowd – the bully stepped in front of her.

“Hello, little maggot,” Bullina purred. Her usual retinue of girls fanned out from behind her, snickering. “Guess what.”

Jamie didn’t know what, so she just stood there and said nothing.

Bullina’s eyes narrowed. “We’ve decided to give you a chance to join our group.”

“Oh?” Jamie asked as she nervously glanced around the cafeteria. A couple of teachers were supervising the breakfast crowd, but they were having a conversation and were not paying attention to what was going on.

“Yes. Since you’re a sad and lonely orphan, we’ve decided to let you be our friend for the rest of the school year.” The girls’ snickering got louder.

“But, Lina, today’s the last day of school.”

“And your point is?”

I guess, thought Jamie, a few hours of friends was better than none. “I mean, thank you. My name is Jamie, not maggot. And I’d also like to be your friend.” She gave Bullina and the other girls her bravest smile.

Bullina smiled back. Her smile reminded Jamie of the banana-half on her tray: incomplete and yellow.“Not so fast, maggot. First you have to pass the initiation.”

The girls stopped snickering and nodded. They were clearly up to something. But what?

“Initiation? What do you mean?”

“You must prove yourself worthy of being in our group, maggot, what do you think we mean?”

Jamie gulped. “What do you want me to do?” She looked from girl to girl, trying to catch their gaze, but, except for Bullina, they were each looking – or pretending to look – somewhere else.

Bullina grinned. Jamie noticed that she seemed to have more teeth than a regular 12-year-old.

“It’s easy. All you have to do is skip one class.”

My revisions:

1- I tried to make the dialogue flow more naturally by reading it aloud.

2- My main character is clearly not as assertive as Bod, but I now have her mentioning that her name is Jamie, not maggot, which I believe makes her appear less wimpy.

3- I added a few elements of suspense in the description.

This was a productive exercise; I hope you try it.

Here’s the exercise for this week:

Repetition is one of the most commonly used rhetorical devices. But it only works when it’s used deliberately to create a special effect. The repetition in a compound sentence such as, “I’m going to the grocery store to buy milk, I’m going to the grocery store to buy cereal, and I’m going to the grocery store to buy eggs,” is redundant and even silly, whereas the repetition in the following compound sentence creates a compelling and visually powerful effect: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.” (Winston S. Churchill)

There are many ways of using repetition, and each way has a fancy literary name (epizeuxis, for example, is the successive repetition of a word: “The girl sat at her desk and wrote, wrote, wrote.”). You should look them up just for fun.

This week’s exercise is to search for powerful examples of repetition in the work of well-known authors and also in your own work.

I’ll post again next week.

“A Hand in the Darkness”

Published September 10, 2012 by Elsa Pla


I won’t be able to post again until the 24th.

This is the last sentence inventory posting (refer to the post titled “The Sentence Inventory”). For now, at least. The point of the inventory is to study the way you or a favorite author constructs sentences and uses special effects (rhetorical devices, etc.).

Again, here’s the chart I created. Please feel free to modify it and use it.

Sentence Inventory

This time I chose to analyze the first four paragraphs (they’re very short) of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

Here’s my filled-out chart:

Sentence Inventory – Filled 2

Mr. Gaiman’s prose is simple, subtle, and absolutely brilliant. In the opening scene he describes the cold and calculated murder of a man, his wife, their young daughter, and, possibly, their baby boy. But wait, this is a story written for children! Mr. Gaiman meets this challenge by avoiding graphic descriptions and making use of allusions and understatements, instead. For example: “The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.” There’s never any mention of blood and gore or actual violence, but the reader can easily imagine what has happened. Especially since the assassin’s name is Jack.

The passage is scary and suspenseful in the way old black and white movies used to be. Then there’s the surprise at the end of the scene: “That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of.” The killing is possibly not over! And the next victim is a baby! The reader is hooked.

The vocabulary is simple, with a few high-level words here and there. His sentences are varied, and the writing flows. It’s a wonderful read-aloud book. I love his use of short, straight-to-the-point statements. For example: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” “The hunt was almost over.” “One more and his task would be done.”

I also love the words and descriptions Mr. Gaiman uses to evoke the mood. For example: “Wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.” Gorgeous writing.

After analyzing Mr. Gaiman’s work, I went and revised a passage from a story I’m working on. Here’s the revised version:

The drownings, the murder victims, and the hole in the middle made the lake a creepy and scary place, but also terribly interesting, in a morbid sort of way.  But they weren’t the reasons people stayed away at night.

The real reason was the ghost.

Those who had seen it described it as a woman in a wedding dress who appeared late at night, usually close to the water’s edge. Drownings usually followed these apparitions.

The night I saw her I was staying at my neighbor’s house.

I was babysitting my neighbor’s twins, and I was sleeping on a cot in their bedroom. Except I couldn’t sleep because I always have a hard time falling asleep in strange surroundings. So, instead, I was wide-awake, thinking depressing thoughts, as usual.

The twin’s bedroom door was partially open, and I could see down the hallway into the living room. Suddenly a light-green glow began to rise from beneath the living room’s floorboards. That by itself would have been enough to scare me into a parallel universe. But then a misty-white figure casually glided above the glow.

That’s when my brain exploded a little bit.

That’s it for the past week.

Because I’ve been studying sentence structure and fluency, I’d like to do the following exercise this week:

1- Choose a few short passages, each by a favorite author, and read them aloud.

2- Choose a passage from your own work and read it aloud. (This exercise works best if you read the passage aloud to someone else.)

3- Revise your passage by improving its fluency and poetic musicality.

Happy writing! 🙂

The Hobbit-Hole

Published September 3, 2012 by Elsa Pla

I’m still using the sentence inventory (refer to the post titled “The Sentence Inventory”) to study the way my favorite authors construct their sentences and use special effects (rhetorical devices, etc.).

The exercise consists of completing a sentence inventory (see the chart below) for either a paragraph by a favorite author or your own paragraph.

Here’s a chart I created. Please feel free to modify it and use it.

Sentence Inventory

This time I chose to analyze the first two paragraphs of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Here’s my filled-out chart:

Sentence Inventory Filled

Lots of great stuff here! This passage is all description: Tolkien is  starting to build a fantasy world, so he uses whimsical sensory and spatial details to help the reader visualize the initial setting. Because he’s describing a place and not an action, the main verbs are fairly simple; that allows the descriptive details (with their verbs) to stand out. I love the way Tolkien takes the reader on a tour of the hobbit-hole, starting at the green, round door and ending at the windows where the reader can see the “garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.”

The sentence structure is amazing: he uses compound sentences, unusual sentence beginnings, snappy sentence endings, em dashes and parentheses, commas and colons, and clauses of varying length. Notice the rhythm created by ending long compound sentences with short independent clauses. Wow.

There are many more rhetorical devices to notice: alliteration (hobbit-hole), repetition (lots and lots, on and on), parallelism (all were; the best rooms were; for these were), and more.

I’ll end by pointing out Tolkien’s delightful use of adverbs: a perfectly round door; a very comfortable tunnel; fairly but not quite straight. I think the adverbs add a unique flavor to the passage.

I plan to continue my sentence analysis for one more week.

I’ll post again next Monday.