Monday, June 15, 2009

Bliss

This is an example of something I've noticed, that sometimes the better writing takes more time to edit. Complexity of sentences usually reflects complexity of thought, and it's a difficult task to simplify the sentence without simplifying the thought. (These also are writers who care about their sentences and meanings, and sometimes argue with every change. :)

Unlike most nightclubs in Monte-Carlo, there were no bright neon lights flashing above
l’Intrigue’s front door, no unending line of eager faces waiting behind a red velvet rope, and no Lamborghinis and Limousines parked out front.

Located on the very east side of the principality, as a private establishment that catered to vampires and to the mortals who could afford the nightly five-hundred-dollar cover charge, the circumspect brass plate on the front door barely drew the eye.

Grudges and disagreements were settled outside. Owned and operated by a small group of vampires with no clan association, the nightclub was a refuge and a conduit to the immortal grapevine.

I know I said only four sentences, but three paragraphs?

Let me state my bias right here-- I tend to despise one-sentence paragraphs. No, that's true. I like the occasional one-sentence paragraph. Like once a chapter. For emphasis.

More than one paragraph like that, or more than one in a row... tends to annoy. It's like, I don't know, Twitter, with all thoughts diminished to a couple lines. That's going to lead to shallow thinking, I think. Or am I just a Luddite? But if a paragraph is a different unit of meaning than a sentence-- if it's meant to connect thoughts and not just express a thought-- most paragraphs should be more than a sentence long. The point of a paragraph is usually to explore a thought, or to show how thoughts relate, or (in fiction) to narrate thought, dialogue, action related to a small event or realization or decision. That's hard to do in a sentence-- and it should be hard to do in a sentence. Sentences aren't designed to do all that, at least not most of the time. Paragraphs are designed to group ideas and sentences that belong together. Otherwise, you'll have assertions without evidence (which is Not Good for our discourse) and, in fiction, events without cause or effect (Not Good for your story's depth).

Yes, some get around this by making sentences long and paragraphs short-- but that still makes paragraphs irrelevant as a unit of meaning. I'm for paragraphs. I think they're useful. I think they provide continuity and connection. I think they are, in fact, essential to moving beyond mere perception of disparate events and thoughts into actual analysis and exploration. Twitter novels are coming, definitely, but there will also always be a place for thoughts that need development, events that need connection to thought and speech and reaction, text that would benefit from subtext. We do have this technology that allows us to put more than 140 characters (or whatever the heck it is, a tweet, and am I think only one who thinks that sounds scatological?) together, and why not use it? (Really long paragraphs, on the other hand, are an indication that the writer hasn't been able to make discriminating choices of what goes with what. What's a good paragraph length? Whatever the thought/event demands. So different lengths for different moments. There are even moments in a book that call for a one-sentence paragraph, usually at the beginning or end of something.)

So, that given, let's get to the line edit:
Unlike most nightclubs in Monte-Carlo, there were no bright neon lights flashing above l’Intrigue’s front door, no unending line of eager faces waiting behind a red velvet rope, and no Lamborghinis and Limousines parked out front.

The "unlike" is a dangling modifier. It's a little sneaky, as the subject (and ostensible modified noun) is "there", and so not egregious and laughable (as would be, Unlike most nightclubs, she...); however, all danglers, even the minor ones, tend to be an indication of something incoherent in the sentence. And that's true here. There's a double negative (unlike... no...), and so it takes a bit of piecing together to figure out what this nightclub IS rather than just what it's NOT. It will be slightly more understandable if you get rid of the dangler by making the nightclub the subject (meaning "This nightclub is unlike other Monte Carlo nightclubs"):
Unlike most nightclubs in Monte-Carlo, L'Intrigue had no bright neon lights flashing above its front door, no unending line of eager faces waiting behind a red velvet rope, and no Lamborghinis and Limousines parked out front.

Now I can see casting it more in the positive: Most Monte Carlo nightclubs had.... But L'Intrigue ....
That is, maybe say what L'Intrigue actually was-- deserted, unassuming, whatever. That would take at least two sentences, but that's good. :)

But if we're going to keep the negative: This is a long sentence, so the first thing I'd do (after fixing the dangler, which I'm going to do no matter what :), if I couldn't easily make it two, is to see where I could trim. There are a couple adjectives I'd delete-- don't need "bright" if we have "neon," "lights," "flashing". We probably don't need "front" in front of "door" as "front" is immediately repeated ("out front") and the second instance is probably necessarier. (That's not a word? I have such a fuddy-duddy spellcheck.) And "unending" might be overkill. I like the idea of "faces waiting," though I don't think it's really accurate (people can wait-- can faces?). It has that Ezra Pound dehumanization aspect--

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

...which amplifies the anonymity of these people waiting in line (who don't exist-- there are no eager faces, no line here).

I'd also trim with Monte Carlo nightclubs rather than nightclubs in Monte Carlo, unless the rhythm suffers. (Rhythm matters. That's how my parents ended up with eight kids. :)

Unless "limousines" is a brand name, it should be lower-cased. Lamborghinis and limos-- I like the alliteration! I'm also thinking that if you want to emphasize the decadence here, you could have and no Lamborghinis and limousines double-parked out front.

Or
and no Lamborghinis and limousines idling out front.


Located on the very east side of the principality, as a private establishment that catered to vampires and to the mortals who could afford the nightly five-hundred-dollar cover charge, the circumspect brass plate on the front door barely drew the eye.

See the problem with many-tentacled sentences-- two long sentences, two dangling modifiers. Well, three, as there are two in this sentence. Danglers jump out at me, so I find them more annoying than most readers probably will. Even if I am hypersensitive, writers should take note: This is the sort of syntax error you want to watch out for if you like long sentences that hook together different syntactical elements.
What is located (past participle)? The nightclub (or its name, or "it"). If you're going to start with "Located," the subject of the sentence should be one of those. (Here's a site to help find and fix dangling modifiers.) And what is "as a private establishment"? Again, the nightclub, and that's good, because both then can be fixed by making "the nightclub" or its name the subject.

However, another danger of the tentacled sentence is burying the lead (okay, reporters, "lede"). Notice that this sentence is all about this nightclub, but the nightclub itself isn't mentioned. Instead, there's just the brass plaque. (I could be argued into agreeing that this subtly amplifies the point that nightclub is so discreet, the brass plaque is all there is to see in the sentence as well as on the street, but the danglers must still be dealt with. I would just then prescribe a scalpel, not a chain saw.)

Is there some reason this all has to be done in one sentence? (I worry that my edict of "four sentences only" led to this. :) Let's break this down into meaning-bites:
The nightclub is located on the east side.
(And Monte Carlo is a principality-- I'm not sure that's needed.)
The nightclub is private.
It caters to vampires and rich mortals.
The cover charge is $500.
There's a brass plate on the front door (presumably with the name).
This plate barely drew the eye (that is, the nightclub is discreet).

Those all seem necessary, don't you think? But let's go with two sentences, or diminish this by trimming.
"Located," like "being," is one of those participles which have no action and thus can almost always be eliminated. The most efficient way to trim a sentence is to diminish participial phrases (which are adjectival in function) to adjectives. So "East side" would be an adjective. And putting that in front of the noun would perforce require the noun, as well as eliminate the dangler.
The east-side club...

There's nothing wrong with starting a sentence with the subject phrase, as long as that's not the only construction you use (and it's not). It's a nice clean contrast to more complex sentence openings, and so the simple SVO (subject-verb-object) sentence should be in your toolkit, and used too. Here's a good place (after and before complex sentences) for a simple sentence.
The east-side club was a private establishment that catered to vampires and to the mortals who could afford the nightly five-hundred-dollar cover charge. The circumspect brass plate on the front door barely drew the eye.
More trimming-- a cover charge is generally charged for a single entrance, so there's little need for "nightly". Okay, maybe there's in-and-out privileges, but really, how much do we care about their door policies? What counts is that it's ridiculously expensive, right? I'd also change "five-hundred-dollars" to the numeral: $500. Let's make this easy for the reader to read, and dollar figures and large numbers are clearest as numerals.

Now I'm assuming vampires don't have to pay? I'm asking because the "to the mortals" implies that they're the ones who have to afford the cover charge. (Caters to vampires. Caters to mortals who can afford.... two groups, only one of whom has to consider the cover charge?) If the vampires also must be able to afford the cover charge, then you need to X the second "to" (and "the") to make the two entities the same weight:
The east-side club was a private establishment that catered to vampires and mortals who could afford the nightly five-hundred-dollar cover charge.
Now that might not be as elegant as you want, but it's good to reduce a sentence to its foundation and make sure it works, and then pretty it up. :)
Grudges and disagreements were settled outside. Owned and operated by a small group of vampires with no clan association, the nightclub was a refuge and a conduit to the immortal grapevine.

I think these sentences need to be flipped, or the first amplified. It seems like you have evidence or example before the guiding principle. That is, you're asserting that this is a refuge from clan conflicts, and the example that shows this is that the grudges are settled outside. So try flipping:
Owned and operated by a small group of vampires with no clan association, the nightclub was a refuge and a conduit to the immortal grapevine. Grudges and disagreements were settled outside.

Don't like to end on a short sentence? Then expand the sentence or add another example. That would add interest anyway. I like the really deadpan attitude-- oh, btw, this is owned by vampires-- that suggests this is a world where vampires are kind of chic. So another example -- maybe that killings are simply not allowed, or whatever-- of a rule that comes from this "refuge" idea would give us more of a glimpse of how civilized and acceptable this all is (simultaneously hinting that vampires are not such peaceable creatures :).
I don't like the "owned and operated" much, though it again has that nice deadpan tone. I think the major problem is that in front-loading the sentence (the element before the comma is at least as long as the one after, the main clause), you might again be hiding the lede. The most important part of the meaning should be (usually) in the main clause, so beware of "Dolly Parton"or "top-heavy" sentences, where the emphasis is on a subordinate element.

(BTW, a clever mystery trick is to embed a clue in a subordinate element-- precisely because we are trained to focus on the main clause as the important element. :)

Finally, "grapevine" as a interconnected communication line is such a common usage, we forget that it is a metaphor. And actual grapevines probably don't have "conduits". (Maybe they do-- I'm the world's worst gardener, and I could be wrong.) It's not a big deal, but it's made bigger because "conduit" is another metaphor here. So you might think through that and see if you can say what you want without the mixed metaphor.

So here it is as one paragraph:
Unlike most nightclubs in Monte-Carlo, L'Intrigue had no neon lights flashing above its door, no line of eager faces waiting behind a red velvet rope, and no Lamborghinis and limousines parked out front. The east-side club was a private establishment that catered to vampires and mortals who could afford the nightly five-hundred-dollar cover charge. Owned and operated by a small group of vampires with no clan association, the nightclub was a refuge and a conduit to the immortal grapevine. Grudges and disagreements were settled outside. (One more sentence here that is more exotic and vampirish.)

I'd probably clean that up so that "club" and "nightclub" aren't repeated so much. Also I'd fix the top-heavy sentence. But that's a paragraph. It states and amplifies or supports an idea, in this case, describing the exclusive nature of the club. A final sentence that succinctly and subtly shows something exotic about this club (vampirish) would tell us we aren't in Kansas anymore and really finish off the paragraph purpose (of sliding us right into this non-ordinary world). Notice that if you go with that, you start the paragraph with a glimpse of what's normal, at least for Monte Carlo, and then quickly narrow into what's beyond-normal (I am being politically correct here-- I wouldn't want to say vampires are ABnormal :). See, that really makes a reason for the paragraph!

Alicia

4 comments:

Bliss said...

Wow. Thank you, Alicia. Your comments make complete sense. I do tend to write too long sentences. Something another editor recently pointed out.

Thank God for revisions!

Again, thanks.

Leona said...

I'm afraid I'm guilty of the long-winded sentence turned paragraph and this post is going to cause me to have to rewrite lots and lots of paragraphs. *sigh*

I love this site. I spent three hours last night going through the blogs on grammar. (I also stopped in on a few other blogs for the fun of it.) This site has done more to jump start my lazy brain then anything since high school.

My college classes put me into a rote. Essays, check, long term papers, check, follow that paper's rules, check, but put it all together? Missing.

As I read your blogs, I would realize "Oh, that's what's wrong with that part." I'd then go find it and fix it within the story.

I write multiple stories at once, as this helps me not stall with writer's block, and I fixed things on the two I'm cureently working on. Went straight to the part that needed fixing, so somewhere in my lazy brain, the knowledge simmers.

I took college level diagraming in highschool and have forgotten most of what I learned. (20 year reunion next year so not too surprising. LOL) This has greatly helped me.

Glynis said...

Thank You, I learned something here. I will be back.

Jordan said...

Alicia . . . I have a confession.

I'm an overdramatic paragrapher.

CRAP. I did it again!

My tendency is to write a paragraph of thought process, break, and then write the ultimate conclusion (if the drama warrants it). Sometimes I even use a second paragraph for the ultimate-ultimate conclusion.

This may be part of my voice, or not—but either way, I do it too much and even in revisions, I sometimes have a hard time getting a good feel for what conclusions would go well together in the same paragraph as the rest of the character's reasoning. What can I do to get better?