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Archive for March, 2009
Posted in On Writing: General, tagged city of saints and madmen, critting, dradin, in love, jeff vandermeer, peter ball, red dragon, rules, sentences, thomas harris, writing on March 30, 2009| 4 Comments »
My writerly posts seem to have been few and far between lately. Possibly because my brain hasn’t been working or has been infected by a case of ‘wombatitis’, which is a lesser known but still virulent strain of laziness. But I have taken some tablets (okay, half a block of choclit) to combat the wombatitis and am now thinking again (albeit slowly – more choclit STAT!).
When I was a younger writer I would happily try to pack as many words into a sentence as I could. Indeed some of my sentences were the literary equivalents of clown cars. All those words crammed up against each other, shoehorned in so none of them could breathe. The reader (hell, the writer) would finish a sentence and would have lost track of what the whole thing was about, because the idea itself was lost about five miles back, right at the beginning of the sentence.
I like to think that time, wisdom and (possibly) increased laziness have shown me the error of my ways. Oh, don’t get me wrong – I still get ‘listy’ with it. I just can’t help stringing four descriptive phrases together because I can’t quite decide which one is prettiest (I am working on that with the help of a therapist) – but I am very conscious nowadays of the efficacy of short sentences. What a pity I didn’t just use one. Oh well. The fact is that the more words the writer puts between an idea and the reader, the slower the story moves. The slower the story moves, the grumpier the reader will get. A grumpy reader is bad. A grumpy reader will not return for your next book or short story. A grumpy reader will track you down at a con and demand back the hours you stole from them[i].
My first drafts are always wordy because that’s the stage of ‘brain-vomit’, when everything goes on the page and everything (well, almost) is forgivable. I even occasionally indulge in ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’ at first draft stage, but carefully excise them from the second draft. When I’m reading first drafts, I sometimes wonder who put on the profanity soundtrack – then I realise that I’m the one swearing because the sentences are so loooooooong and just awful. So, let us give sincere and humble thanks for the magical process that is ‘editing’, or ‘revision’, or ‘rewriting’, or whatever else you’d like to call it.
When editing one of the things I try to do is make my sentences as short and sharp as possible, without sacrificing the rhythms I like so much in language. When critting other people’s work one of my most frequent comments is “Why use eight words when four or five will do?” This can lead to beatings and stuff getting thrown, but I’m rather good at ducking. Things that drag a sentence out are phrases like “He began to think about”, “She recalled how she had thought”. If there is an action a character is taking then just have her/him take it – don’t ‘commentate’ them into it. That’s always a sign that the writer is thinking their own way into the story. Just like a scene where every single action is described. “He put his hand on the door knob. He turned the door knob. The door swung open. He took four steps across the threshold. He turned around. He closed the door. He turned around again to face the room.” *sigh* How about “He entered the room”? I am reviewing a book at the moment and the text is littered with these kinds of literary slowdowns – and the disturbing thing is that they got past an editor at a reputable publishing house. No, no, I won’t say which one. No. No, no, sending me choclit won’t change my mind.
Who is good at short sentences? Well, the author who springs to mind is Thomas Harris. In particular, look at Red Dragon, his first Hannibal novel. The prose is clean, precise and incisive. Not a word goes astray, not one ounce of fat on his language. “Graham was angry. Crawford was right, of course. Graham was a natural procrastinator, and he knew it. Long ago in school he had made up for it with speed. He was not in school now.” In addition to being a fantastically concise character sketch, this is also a wonderful example of the effective use of short, sharp sentences. (He also gives us stuff like this “Men have no confidence in whispers”, which just rocks, but I’ll talk about making apposite observations another day.)
“So, Angela,” I hear you ask, “are there any exceptions to the ‘long sentences are evil’ motto which you surely have embroidered on a cushion?” Why, yes, there are. I stumbled across one recently. Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen has a stunning baroque tone about it. The writing is dense and complex, the sentences are long and winding and have a wealth of information folded inside. They are like the Chinese boxes of sentences. The important thing to note is this: Captain VanderMeer is a master of his art. Because Jeff understands not only sentence structure, but also the rhythm required of a sentence, where its natural pauses are to be found. Or as my friend Peter Ball (who has a bigger brain than I) says “he structures them in such a way that there’s either a natural point to pause and process meaning or a rhythm and structure that’s pleasurable to read when divorced from immediate interpretation”. Bravo – couldn’t have said it better myself.
When I read a VanderMeer sentence I feel I am unwrapping something – not that I’m having to swim through treacle to get at meaning. Each word is relevant and carefully chosen, each word reveals something the reader needs to know. This from the novella Dradin, In Love: “Watching her, his blood simmering within him, Dradin wondered if he was dreaming her, she a haloed, burning vision of salvation, soon to disappear mirage-like, so that he might once more be cocooned within his fever, in the jungle, in the darkness.” Long sentence, not one wasted word, everything is relevant. There are more – lots of ‘em, in fact. I’d recommend going and finding a copy of City of Saints and Madmen and just seeing how it’s done.
That’s another thing about writing – sure, it’s fine to break the rules, to do something new, but man, shouldn’t you know what the rules are first? Captain VanderMeer can break the rules because he knows what they are. He understands sentences. One day, I hope to understand them well enough to try and do what he does. Until then, dear readers, short sentences are my friends.
[i] In this case, all you can do is (a) run, (b) apologise, (c) offer choclit, or (d) a combination of all three.
New Ceres Nights is now available for presale within Australia only. Rest assured it will be available for OS purchasers soon. Go here http://twelfthplanetpress.wordpress.com/shop/ to add something wonderful to your bookshelf :-).
New Ceres, a planet in the outer colonies, embraced the Age of Enlightenment nearly two hundred years ago and refused to let go. Refugees and opportunists come to New Ceres in search of new lives, escaping the conflicts of the interstellar war that has already destroyed Earth.
New Ceres Nights presents thirteen exciting stories of freedom, debauchery, decadence, subterfuge and murder set against the backdrop of powdered wigs, coffee houses, duels and balls.
Debutante — Dirk Flinthart
The Widow’s Seven Candles — Thoraiya Dyer
Code Duello — J C Hay
Murder in Laochan — Aliette de Bodard
Tontine Mary — Kaaron Warren
Fair Trade — Stephen Dedman
A Troublesome Day for Jacky Midnight — Matthew Farrer
Prosperine When It Sizzles — Tansy Rayner Roberts
Candle to the Devil — Sue Isle
Blessed Are the Dead That the Rain Falls Upon — Martin Livings
The Sharp Shooter — Sylvia Kelso
Smuggler’s Moon — Lee Battersby
The Piece of Ice in Miss Windermere’s Heart — Angela Slatter
This is v exciting. May I draw your attention to the Best Speculative Fiction Adapted category of the SCRIBE Awards*? Karen Miller’s Star Wars novel is up for a gong! Woot and Snoopy Dancing combined.
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY by Bob Greenberger
THE MUTANT CHRONICLES by Matt Forbeck
STAR WARS – THE CLONE WARS: WILD SPACE by Karen Miller
UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS by Greg Cox
* run by the International Association of Media Tie In Writers.
So exciting it requires three exclamation marks in the title!!!
Shimmer is re-launching and giving away their tenth issue free – FREE! There is an interview with the erudite Cory Doctorow (creator of Little Brother, amongst other pieces of genius). Go here http://www.shimmerzine.com/issue-ten/ to download your copy – and tell people! They need it too.
The ToC is below:
Blue Joe, by Stephanie Burgis
The Carnivale of Abandoned Tales, by Caitlyn Paxson
A Painter, A Sheep, and a Boa Constrictor, by Nir Yaniv (Translated by Lavie Tidhar)
One for Sorrow, by Shweta Narayan
The Bride Price, by Richard S. Crawford
Jaguar Woman, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Firefly Igloo, by Caroline M. Yoachim
The Fox and the King’s Beard, by Jessica Paige Wick
Interview with Cory Doctorow, by Jen West
River Water, by Becca De La Rosa
What to Do with the Dead, by Claude Lalumière
The Spoils of Springfield, by Alex Wilson
Counting Down to the End of the Universe, by Sara Genge
Belatedly (I am a little slow): the Hugo noms live here http://www.thehugoawards.org/?p=260
Of special excitement and note are: Ann VanderMeer (with Stephen H Segal) for Weird Tales as Best Semiprozine, the magnificent Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey” for Best Short Story (and last year’s Campbell winner), and my friend and occasional ToC buddy, Aliette de Bodard for The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
Squeeeeeee all round!