Motivation and purpose and tapping into your deepest drives for why you want to write, who the reader is that you’re writing for, and creating just the right structure for your book are all important. However, none of those things matter as much if we, as writers, can’t get the sentence-level detail right. And that’s what we're talking about with Anatomy of Prose author Sacha Black. Sometimes it's the little things we need to look at to improve our writing.Support the show
book, sentence, writing, author, repetition, read, writers, adverbs, dialogue, sasha, character, filtering, word, reader, juxtaposition, tags, nonfiction, describing, nonfiction books, feel
Boni Wagner-Stafford 00:52
Motivation and purpose and tapping into your deepest drives for why you want to write, who the reader is that you’re writing for, and creating just the right structure for your book are all important. However, none of those things matter as much if we as writers can’t get the sentence-level detail right. And that is what I love about the way “Anatomy of Prose” author, Sacha Black helps us look at how to improve our writing. So about Sacha: she’s a bestselling author, a rebel podcaster, and a professional speaker. She writes educational nonfiction books for writers and fantasy books for young adult and adult audiences. And she is our guest today on the Empowered Author podcast. Sacha, hello.
Sacha Black 01:42
Hello, thank you so much for inviting me. It’s been far too long since we spoke.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 01:46
I know! It has. It has. And lots of things happening since the last time that we connected but we’re not here to talk about all of those fun things.
Sacha Black 01:57
Boni Wagner-Stafford 01:58
Yeah. So I’ve been reading your book, “Anatomy of Prose”. And you know, first of all, I love the color design – cover design and the little devilly hook thing, which gives us a hint into your personality. That’s lovely. But so much good stuff there, including – and maybe at the beginning place that we need to start – is that when we’re writers, we have to read differently. Tell me about that.
Sacha Black 02:28
So this is interesting, because I think that chapter specifically is actually going to become a book in and of itself. Yeah, because it’s such an important topic. So many writers don’t know how to teach themselves, or how to extract tools, literary devices, from the things that they are reading. Now, a lot of people think that this means that you have to read slowly, and I don’t prescribe any one route for any one person. There are some people who can absorb all of the content and read quickly, and that’s fine. So I don’t want anybody to feel like I am demanding that you read slowly. For me, personally, I have to read every word. Otherwise, I can’t take in the lessons and pick out the tools. So like, what do I mean by reading like a writer? Well, essentially, it means being able to pick out and spot tools, tricks, tactics, methods, and devices that authors are using to create a particular effect. Because what usually happens when we first start writing is we write a whole bunch of stuff. And we think we’ve said what we think we’ve said, but actually, we haven’t really said what we think we said, and that’s purely down to not using the right sentence-level tools. So how do you do this? Well, for me, personally, I slow down. And actually, I say that I read still pretty fast. I read like over 100 books a year, so I still read quite fast.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 04:12
Sacha Black 04:13
I commit …
Boni Wagner-Stafford 04:13
That’s a book every three days, Sacha.
Sacha Black 04:15
Yeah, like every … If I – yeah, every two to three days, I’m reading a book. I think I’ve read like 12 books this month: something like that. I don’t know.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 04:22
Oh, my goodness.
Sacha Black 04:22
Anyway. So what I personally do is I commit sacrilege and I have a pencil with me every time I read a book. And I have some sticky tabs. When I feel something, when something makes me raise an eyebrow, when I’m like, “Oh, that was such a good line.” – you know, like if it was sort of witty banter or dialogue or something like that – or I’m like, “OMG, I feel so connected to this character because of that quirk,” – like ah, I remember loving that as a kid – anything that makes me feel something, that makes me stop or appreciate or think, “Wow,” I stop right there. I underline the sentence, I stick a sticky tab in the book, and sometimes – and moreso more recently – I then stop and look at that sentence and go, “Okay, what have they done? How have they made me feel this thing? What tools have they used? And why have they done it?” So, like how and why are really important questions when it comes to analyzing story and things at the fiction level. The other thing that I do is I wait until the end and then I just go back and I reread the sentences that I’ve underlined. And this is a really good practice because when you are just reading those underlying sentences all in one go, you can pattern spot: it becomes a lot easier. And what I tend to find is that each book, a writer will have done one thing really well. Like, of course, I’m sure they’ve done lots of things, but the things that I underline tend to be similar. So for example, somebody may have been really good at dialogue, or somebody may have been really good at characterization, or they might have been really good at description. And so then I take out the sentences, sometimes I will copy them up, and I look down at the sentence level. Have they used punctuation to like …? Is there a rhythm and cadence to the sentence? Or okay, how have they done that? Have they use really long words? Have they used really short words? Have they used juxtapositions in their sentences? Have they used metaphors? Well, what’s the structure of the metaphor? You know, so I look at every single word in that sentence, to see what it is they have done. And why.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 06:56
Let’s pause for a moment for a message from our sponsor.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 07:28
I should have done this at the beginning for the audience, which is say that we’re not talking about fiction or nonfiction. This is whatever kind of a writer you are. That that reading in this different way, is one of the key ways you can make sure that you are advancing your own craft.
Sacha Black 07:48
Boni Wagner-Stafford 07:49
So it doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at non or fiction.
Sacha Black 07:51
No, totally. If you’re reading creative memoir, like creative nonfiction, you can do exactly the same thing. If you’re reading a business book, and they’re talking about a really dense, complicated topic, and they have explained it in a really succinct way or in a really humorous way, I will still underline that stuff and be like, how did they do that? What metaphor or analogy did they use to explain this complicated concept? So yeah, like you can totally do this, regardless of whether it is fiction, or nonfiction or poetry or anything else in between.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 08:27
Right. So I – from your book, I excerpted a sentence that you used as an example. And I loved this sentence. So – and it’s a quote from Melissa Albert, author of “The Hazel Wood”. And the sentence is this: “But already the edges were rubbing off the memory’s freshness. I could feel it degrading in my hands.” So tell me why you chose that sentence to include in your book. And let’s talk about some of the things that you pulled apart in what we’re talking about with this very single, simple, short sentence.
Sacha Black 09:06
So I – I have not gone back and reread exactly what I wrote. But I’m hoping that I will give you the same – the same explanation, or at least I’ll get close to it. Okay. So, one of the reasons I love this sentence so much is because it is taking an intangible concept, and it is making it tangible. So memories are intangible: you cannot touch a memory; you cannot hold it in your hands. And yet, that is exactly what she is doing in this sentence. So – and this is actually something that really good writers do: they either make the tangible intangible, or they make the intangible tangible. And I know that’s a bit of a mouthful.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 09:52
No, but it’s, it’s – yeah, it’s, it’s brilliant. And once you start to pay attention – once you notice that once and you start to pay attention to it – then you start to realize how effective it is.
Sacha Black 10:03
Absolutely. And the other thing that I think really good writers do – and I did not realize the – I don’t want to use the word frequently, the amount that this happens, but is personification. Really good writers use so much personification and particularly for like, things, things that are intangible. So, yeah, the fact that she is saying that – you know, and this is the wonderful thing about this kind of imagery that she’s creating here: not only is she making the intangible tangible; she is giving something that has no substance a feel, a texture. She can feel it in her hands. Now, when you use the word “feel” in a sentence, technically it is filtering. And that is something you shouldn’t do. However, this is an example of how you can break any rule and make it work, right? So yeah, she is giving it texture. She is … It is just exquisite, I think. So, yeah. And it’s – and it, this – one last thing: it is so, such a tiny, small detail, okay? So that – not memory; it’s the edge of a memory that she’s talking about, right? It is, it is the minutest of details. And usually, what you find is that the smaller the detail a writer reaches and describes, the bigger and more universal that emotion becomes. It is more relatable. And it’s just, it’s –that shouldn’t be but it’s always a paradox, you know? Like it shouldn’t (indiscernible).
Boni Wagner-Stafford 11:44
Yes. Exactly. But it’s true. And it’s that diving into detail that can be the most challenging. We are not used to, as human beings, pausing long enough to drill down into that detail. And yet here we are: as writers, not only do we need to recognize what it is that we’re trying to describe; we need to know what all the potential emotions and senses are around it and decide which of those we’re going to drill down into. And then we write about it. It’s fascinating.
Sacha Black 12:23
Abs–. I could not agree more. I like geek out about this stuff constantly.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 12:28
Yeah. Yeah. The other thing you mentioned about this Melissa Albert quote – and I’m going to say it again, just because I’m looking at it in front of me, but people listening to this podcast are not looking at it in front of them: “But already the edges were rubbing off the memory’s freshness. I could feel it degrading in my hands.” You talked about juxtaposition in your analysis of this one sentence in your book “Anatomy of Prose.” Tell me about that.
Sacha Black 12:56
So, juxtapositions are essentially putting two conflicting descriptions next to each other. So “bittersweet” is a juxtaposition. And it is – it is in the conflict between those two items that it creates such sharp contrast. So a really good example of this is Captain Kirk and Spock. They are a juxtaposition together and it is in their differences that their characters come alive. And it’s exactly the same at the sentence level. So when you can put sharp things, like edges, against things that are smooth, like rubbing – or, you know, degrading is sort of this breaking away, and yet an edge is supposed to be sharp – that you get this really luxurious description and picture in your mind. Juxtapositions are some of my most favourite forms of like literary tool because they … She – there’s another quote that I use of hers, about: she’s describing a character. And I don’t remember the quote, exactly, but it’s something along the lines of describing her mother as “a blade wrapped in orchids”. And it is, I mean, can you …
Boni Wagner-Stafford 14:19
Sacha Black 14:20
Yeah, exactly. Wow. She is “a blade wrapped in orchids”. Like the softness, the beauty, the – you know, just that natural gorgeousness of orchids against a blade. You know, violent, sharpened …
Boni Wagner-Stafford 14:35
Buried beneath. Buried beneath, yeah. Oh my goodness.
Sacha Black 14:40
So, and – but there again, you know, that’s a juxtaposition and it creates this almost breathtaking image and description. And I don’t know: it’s like, we comprehend on a deeper level, I think, when authors use these techniques to describe.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 15:02
Yeah. Yeah, it gives us a glimpse into the complexity that exists all around us. And certainly within every character and every person, whether it’s a fictional character or, or something real in nonfiction. You mentioned filtering earlier. And, and Melissa Albert uses filtering by saying, “I could feel it.” And you said, “Well, that’s,” you know, “technically that’s breaking the rule of filtering.” And rules are an interesting thing. And I’m going to go to filtering in a second. But rules are an interesting thing. And it’s true that you can break them. But it is also true, I think, that before you break them, you need to understand how to follow them.
Sacha Black 15:43
Yes. I completely agree.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 15:44
So – and filtering is one of those examples: where I see filtering a lot in, in writing, and it’s not obviously a conscious choice; it is a default fallback from not understanding what to do instead. So let’s talk about filtering. These are the “I heard, I saw, I felt, I thought” statements.
Sacha Black 16:08
Right. Exactly. So I think when you’re a newer writer, you just don’t know that that’s a thing that you need to take out until somebody tells you. Because, of course, you know, if you feel something, you’re going to write.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 16:18
Take it out! Take it out! Take it out!
Sacha Black 16:21
At least to me, it’s a very – it’s a way, the way ... It’s the way we speak: we say, “I saw so-and-so. I heard the train go past earlier.” Like, you know, this is how we speak. And so that’s why it gets into writing so often. But the problem is: so essentially, filtering is when you as the author add in an extra layer of narration that is unnecessary. So instead of – so it doesn’t matter whether, what person or point of view that you’re in – good writing, you put the reader inside the character’s body and they are like, looking at the world, doing the actions as this character. When you filter, you remove the reader from the protagonist’s body, and they are standing next to the protagonist, watching the protagonist do the thing. But the thing is, nine times out of ten with filtering, the action – you know, the action of seeing or the action of hearing – is like, it may – it’s like inherent in, in, in what you’re describing. So for example, if you said – so I’m going to do it as first person – “I heard an owl hoot and I saw the leaves rustle,” right? But actually, that sentence is – I don’t know, however many words it is but you can remove two words, because you can just say, “The owl hooted.” Because in that sentence, “The owl hooted,” you know the character has heard it, because hooting is a sound, right? So …
Boni Wagner-Stafford 17:55
Sacha Black 17:55
It’s just wasteful words that you can cut out. And if the leaves rustle, you are both seeing and hearing that because you are describing it. And so you can remove these words: “I heard.” “I saw.” “I felt.” “She’s,” you know, “he, she saw, felt, heard,” whatever. But like we said, there are always instances where you can break the rules. You know, in this instance, it’s slightly less of a rule break because she is talking about what she’s creating, you know, like an analogy around the feeling of a memory. Technically, it’s still filtering. But …
Boni Wagner-Stafford 18:33
Yeah, no, exactly.
Sacha Black 18:35
It is an example of exactly how you can break any and every rule.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 18:40
Yeah, and you know, I was just looking at the sentence that we’re, we’ve been talking about. If we removed the filtering …
Sacha Black 18:46
You just say, “It degraded.”
Boni Wagner-Stafford 18:48
“It degraded in my hands.”
Sacha Black 18:48
Yes, exactly. Right. “It degraded in my hands.” But you would lose something in that, in this context, you would lose something. And that’s how you know whether or not you should keep it.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 18:59
Yeah. So a place where filtering is used an awful lot is in dialog tags. You do talk a little bit about dialogue, including the tags. Oh my goodness, there’s so much that we can talk about dialogue tags. On one hand, I see, I see people on social media going, “Oh my God, help me find something else to say other than, you know, ‘He said.’ I’ve …” You know, they’re doing the synonym search and it’s like, whoa, hang on a minute. It’s not that we need synonyms for said. Tell me, Sacha, what you do when you’re doing – when you’re writing, when you’re writing dialogue: how do you decide what dialogue tags to use?
Sacha Black 19:40
So, the purpose of an, of a dialogue tag is to identify who has said the line of dialogue. And therefore, in terms of the quantity of dialogues or dialogue tags you need, you need as many as is required to be crystal clear who was saying what. So for example, in – in a scene where you only have two characters, you’re not actually going to need that many dialogue tags because it is most likely going to be back-forth, back-forth, back-forth. That said, if there is some kind of like action or movement that detracts from the dialogue, then you’re going to have to reintroduce a dialogue tag because the reader won’t necessarily know who is speaking after that action and movement. Now – I’m trying to think what else I can tell you. So what else do I do? I mostly stick to “said”, “says”, depending on the tense that you’re writing in. And the reason for that is because “said” and “says” are like unicorn words: they are magical. The reader is blind to them; they just don’t see them. And therefore, you know, it’s like the opposite of repetition, like it breaks every repetition rule: you could repeat the word “said”, you know, and the reader just will ignore it. And it’s absolutely fine. When you start to include things like, “She barked loudly,” first of all, don’t use the word adverb. But second of all, when you do that, you are essentially drawing the reader’s attention to that dialogue. That then tells them that they’re reading and knocks them very slightly out of, like, the story. Now, that’s an extreme case, of course. But also, the most important thing with dialogue is that your reader should be able to infer any dialogue tag description from the way you’ve written the dialogue. So for example, if you’re saying, “She shouted,” for example, the reader should know from the dialogue that she was shouting. So for example, you might have shorter sentences: “I don’t think so!” You know, it doesn’t matter how you say, you know … Like, if it’s written, “I don’t think so!” in text and then there’s another like, short sentence, or it’s, you know, snappy words, we hear these sentences all the time in real life. So we naturally – because we understand and communicate with dialogue – will hear those tonal changes. And so more often than not, you don’t need the extra dialogue tag, because it’s telling: you’re telling the reader. No, show the reader through the dialogues itself, how they’re speaking and saying it.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 22:33
We can’t … I want to – I want so bad to go down so many routes here. But let’s talk about adverbs. You don’t have to look very far before you find examples of writing where the author is overly reliant on adverbs. And, you know, I’ve worked with some authors where it’s like, “No, no, I want to emphasize that point there. Therefore, I want to say ‘sharply’.” Or it’s like, hmm, that doesn’t do it. That does, in fact, detract from the emphasis that you’re trying to, to portray. So why is it that adverbs have this opposite effect from what many authors think they have?
Sacha Black 23:17
It’s because they are essentially overdescribing a verb. And realistically, all you – you can remove an adverb from a sentence and 98, 99 times out of 100, you won’t affect the meaning of the sentence. And if that is the case, you don’t need the word. The other common reason that writers use them is because they haven’t picked a verb that is strong enough. So for example, saying, “She hit him.” Well, what does that mean? Did she nudge him? Because you could nudge hit somebody. Did she punch him? Because that is, you know, that is much clearer: you can’t punch somebody lightly, okay? It just doesn’t happen. So in the word “punch”, there is like a strength: a strength of the action. And therefore you wouldn’t need an adverb to change, change that. The other thing I will say about adverbs is – and it pains me to say this – they do have the occasional use, and that is usually in humour. So if you look at authors like Terry Pratchett, he sprinkles the hell out of adverbs in his work. And he is funny as, you know, so he – and he gets away with it. And there are other authors I’ve met, like Terry Pratchett, and his sort of tone and style – I’m trying to think if Douglas Adams was like that as well; I can’t remember specifically, but anyway, I feel like he probably is. But yeah, there are some authors with that sort of very tangential, whimsical humour that do use adverbs. But they know how to use them. They’re using them intentionally. So yeah, and also, I do occasionally use adverbs in my nonfiction but I try to avoid them very much in my fiction. I try to be careful with the amount in my nonfiction, but you know, I’m just saying there are ways and means of using them even though I don’t really like them.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 25:25
Yeah. And I think the most brilliant nugget I heard from you on adverbs is the one thing you can do if you find yourself using an adverb is ask yourself the question: have you chosen the right verb?
Sacha Black 25:38
Boni Wagner-Stafford 25:39
Even in nonfiction.
Sacha Black 25:40
Boni Wagner-Stafford 25:40
That’s, you know, that’s, that’s great. And then if yes, you’ve chosen the verb and you still think you need an adverb or something, is there some other action you’re missing? Is there – so what is, you know, is there another way to show what you’re, what you’re telling? And if the answer is still no, okay, use the adverb but it’s a good sign to take a closer look at what you’re, what you’re doing.
Sacha Black 26:04
Boni Wagner-Stafford 26:05
What about repetition? Are there times that it can work?
Sacha Black 26:11
Yes. Okay, so “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V.E. Schwab is a really good example of where repetition can work. She uses five-word sentences. And she’s very rhythmic with how she writes. And there are some sections where she will intentionally repeat phrases like three times, for example, but she’s doing it for effect. And so there are definitely occasions when you can use repetition. The problem happens – the problem is, when you use repetition intentionally, it is very, very obvious and it creates a very beautiful effect. When you use it unintentionally, it is really obvious and it just looks like sloppy writing. And so for all the beauty in that book, there were two words that she overused. And I picked them up, because – so, for example, the more unusual the word, the fewer times you can use it. And I don’t know actually how to say this word but I think it’s like a “palimpsest” or something: it basically is like referring back to like history, which is essentially what her whole book is, but it was used nine times. And I had never heard of that word before. And so because I’d never heard of it before, it stuck out to me. So the copy editor really should have picked up on that. And she also used the – overused the word “shadows”. But that was more understandable, given the context of the book. However, yes, so you can also use repetition intentionally to enhance things, to create effects, to create rhythm. And there are lots of like literary tools. There’s a really good book actually called “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth, and there are a few repetition tools in there that you can read up about how to use them. And so yeah – or actually, maybe even some of them in the back of my own book. I’m recommending someone else’s book. There’s probably …
Boni Wagner-Stafford 28:27
Sacha Black 28:27
Some in the back end of mine.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 28:28
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And I was realizing that I didn’t really give much context when we started talking about repetition. And so there’s a range: there’s the kind of repetition that as beginning authors, we don’t always know we’re using because we have our own speech patterns. And several years ago, I had somebody beta read one of my first nonfiction books. And she came back and said – and I don’t actually remember the word but it was something like, “Do you know how often you say ‘just’?”
Sacha Black 29:01
Oh, yeah, so these …
Boni Wagner-Stafford 29:03
So, and I – those little things, that’s that kind of repetition. And then there’s the repetition of another favourite word that might not be, you know, so squishy and small that you don’t notice it, like “palimpsest” or whatever that word was. I have to look that up.
Sacha Black 29:15
Yeah, right? Yeah, so those particular words are called crutch words, but we also have crutch phrases. And I don’t think I put that in “The Anatomy of Prose”. But, so crutch words are your individual ones. They’re really common things like “just so”, “but”, “then”, “that”. Yes, so those are those kinds of words. And then we have our own personal ones. So like, for example, one of my friends – I’m sure she won’t mind me saying this – she used to use the phrase “all at once,” and – like as, “a feeling came all at once,” and I, you know, after I circled that 27 times, I was like, “Girl, you need to do a frequency check.”
Boni Wagner-Stafford 29:53
Sacha Black 29:54
Yeah. And so I have my own phrases as well, to be fair, but yes. And there is …
Boni Wagner-Stafford 29:58
We all do. It’s …
Sacha Black 29:59
Yeah, but there are also echoes. So an echo then is something that’s similar to that phrase. So instead of “all at once”, she might have said, “all of a sudden”, right? And that’s an echo because it’s similar but it’s a different phrase. And so it’s really hard to spot this in your own work, which is why editors are so vital. But also, bits of software like ProWritingAid are really good at picking up this stuff. So I, I personally use ProWritingAid as well. I really recommend it.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 30:29
Sacha Black 30:30
Yeah. And like you say, so repetition is insidious because it’s at so many different levels. So another type of repetition: if you’re writing like creative nonfiction, like maybe a memoir, and you’re using different people’s names to protect people, you have to be careful because you could, you could call people like Maria, Max, Mike, you know, Michaela, and all of a sudden, you have like five characters all with their names beginning with M. And whilst audibly, it might sound different and it might be okay in an audiobook, when you’re reading all of those M’s, and there’s, and it’s only by sight, that actually can become confusing. And so it’s at the sentence level that it’s not okay. And so yeah, like, then there’s, I suppose, like, character repetition. Have you got two mentors? Do you really need to mental archetypes? You know, yeah, so … And then another form of repetition that I think a lot of writers forget to check for because we’re so bothered about everything else, is the start and end of your chapters. Doesn’t matter if it’s nonfiction, or if it’s fiction, checking how you open and close a chapter is really important. So are you opening and closing every chapter with dialogue? Are you opening and closing them all with setting description? Or an info dump? Or a, you know … And actually, we don’t realize that we have these habits, you know, for the beginnings of each of our chapters. So that’s a really good place also to look for repetition.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 32:07
Awesome. What are you writing right now?
Sacha Black 32:10
So I’ve just finished editing a book called “Eight Steps to Side Characters: How to Craft Supporting Roles with Attention, Purpose, and Power”. And I’m editing the workbook this week. And then I also have two fiction books. There’s like a – the third book in a series and then a novella, which are both written; they’re just waiting to be edited. And then two other books. I literally am not helping myself right now. But yeah, I’m like 15k into a book called “The Center of Death”. And then I’ve just started looking at the next nonfiction but I won’t talk about that right now. Yeah.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 32:50
Well, we’ll – I’ll have you back to talk about the next nonfiction. I always, I always try to keep as close to 30 minutes as I can. I felt like we could go on talking for another hour about this stuff. Fascinating. I want to thank you so much for joining us. And for listeners, it is “The Anatomy of Prose”, by Sacha Black. And those are the – there’s way more in the book that we couldn’t talk about today. Fantastic book to help you advance your, your craft as you work towards becoming an empowered author. And so Sacha, thank you so much for joining us.
Sacha Black 33:25
Thank you so much for having me.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 33:31
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