All we have are words, and we must get them right

Ernest Hemingway said his goal as an author was to write one true sentence.
Ernest Hemingway said his goal as an author was to write one true sentence.

HEMINGWAY WAS dead solid serious.

So was the interviewer.

Hemingway had the answer.

The interviewer wanted it.

He asked, “How much re-writing do you do?

Hemingway paused, thought it over a moment, then replied, “It depends. I re-wrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times.”

The interviewer raised an eyebrow.

One answer obviously led to the next question.

“Was there some technical problem there?” he wanted to know. “What was it that had stumped you?”

Hemingway didn’t hesitate.

“Getting the words right,” he said.

That’s the problem facing any writer.

We all have the same words in our basket.

We learn them.

We collect them.

We lock them away.

Need a new one?

Go to the dictionary.

Dictionaries are full of words.

So is Google.

But it’s what we do with those words that make the difference.

We never scatter them the same way.

Some of us pack a few words into compact sentences.

Others try to find out how many words they can string into a single sentence.

What’s best?

John had been expecting her when she came through the door.

He had waited up most of the night.

He was fearful.

She was tall.

He had been crying.

She was blonde.

He wore a frown.

She wore a red dress.

She carried a revolver.

Was she worried?

Or mad at him?

John no longer saw her face.

His eyes had not left the gun.

If she were leaving again, he thought, she would take his life with her.

That works for me.

It might not work for you.

You may prefer for your prose to be more lyrical.

You may want to write the same scene in a sentence that borders on literary fiction.

John had been up most of the night, full of angst and self-doubt, and he sat alone in a small, cramped room on the second floor of a walkup hotel, waiting for her to come, wondering if she would stay or leave again, wondering if he even wanted her to stay or leave again, and she had walked into the room before he saw her coming, and his eyes darted from her face, framed by long blonde hair, to the revolver she carried in her hand. He waited for her to speak, but she had nothing to say, and he was afraid to open his mouth, afraid she would close it forever with a single shot.

That works for me, too.

It all depends on how you want to write at the particular moment of that particularly day.

Writers simply sit in the darkness.

At least I do.

And we’ve all been given a deck of words.

We shuffle them.

We deal them.

And we all play our hands differently.

As Hemingway said, we all have one responsibility.

We must get the words right.

And we keep dealing them until we do.

Sometimes we fold the hand and walk away.

You will find sentences both long and short sprinkled throughout my novel, Secrets of the Dead.

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  • So true. I re-write entire chapters numerous times, trying to capture the vital elements with the best possible word combinations, while making sure I stay true to my author’s ‘voice’. That last one is the hardest, because my voice tends toward to seeing the humor of a situation. This isn’t so easy in a dramatic scene or a love scene.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I once heard Tommy Thompson interviewed. He wrote Blood & Money. He said when you slam the write adjective against the right noun, it feels better than sex.

  • On a slightly humorous note, I would hate to have to diagram the second example you wrote! Seriously, your article is an encouragement not to fear rewriting a passage repeatedly. YOu always have words of wisdom.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I don’t know about the wisdom, Pat, and I sure don’t diagram sentences. I write them and let the English teachers untangle them.

  • I’m enjoying reading things I’d forgotten I’d written (I’m reading the paper version of my book a bit at a time as part of preparation for the second book in the trilogy) – it’s fun.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia, sometimes I find stories or articles I had written long ago and am pleasantly surprised. Other times I quietly drop the paper in a trash can and hope the garbage man doesn’t take time to read it.

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