Thursday, September 6, 2012

TMI Sentences

Accidental Sentencing

New writers tend to regard sentence content as almost accidental, a matter of writing out whatever string of words is dictated by the muse in whatever order the muse comes up with. So often when we first start writing we have a series of sentences which string out and double back in order to get everything in more or less:
Paula tried to be humble. This showed in her voice. She was thanking Harriet for pouring her a drink. The drink was a dacquiri and Harriet poured it into a martini glass. It was the third dacquiri Paula had drunk that evening, and it was having an effect. She was trying to sound humble as she talked to Paula but all the rum was making her feel self-confident. She was after all used to being in command. So she couldn't help but sound like a commander now.

Now you all are looking at that paragraph and thinking, "I would sure edit that, make it more connected, combine some of those short sentences, show what's going on, not just present everything in a timeless mess like that." Yep. New writers seldom edit to that level of purpose, and good writers seldom just write a sentence or paragraph and leave it be. "First thought" is, for good writers, generally not "best thought."

The "Good Writer" Version  
Good writers know that sentences (and paragraphs) are flexible: They can be ever expanded and modified to fit in more information, another detail, a useful caveat, one more mood-setting descriptor. However, this sometimes results in sentences which are like foie-gras geese-- overstuffed and downright unhealthy. 
Then, as Harriet poured rum-powered juice into her martini glass, Paula worked hard to put a humble note into her voice, but the self-confidence inspired by three dacquiris kept threatening to send her into her more accustomed role of commander-in-chief. 
 That's not really all that much more readable than the first version. Yes, it puts it all into one package-sentence, incorporating time markers (then, as) and connective conjunctions (but) to show relationships between ideas. And this version uses the fun trick of infusing action and drama with strong verbs and verbals. Notice how action/verb forms are embedded as modifiers (rum-powered juice, inspired by, more accustomed role). That makes for a more bristling read. There's always more tension in verbs than nouns. (Nouns by definition are static... they are what they are that very moment.)
And all the information in that shapeless paragraph is incorporated into this meaning-laden single sentence. So what's the problem? Well, there's such a thing as "too much information," when good writers  test the tensile capacity of the English sentence by forcing more and more into it. Good writers often replace slackness with 5G force, rendering the sentence explosive with information.  (Hey-- I started with this version of that sentence: Good writers often end up with sentences like this, replacing the slackness with 5G information force, ... want to pick up the force-fed overstuffed metaphor somehow, uh... too complex, and there's a dangling participle-wannabe in there, and.... Point is, when we edit sentences, we don't always end up with great sentences, just not-so-bad sentences. )

The TMI Sentence

TMI sentences are the workaholics of prose, chugging along at the office adding on more tasks long after most others have gone home to eat dinner. Any industrial psychologist will tell you the problem here, or problems: An unwillingness to delegate, and an inability to distinguish the essential from the non-essential. (Boy, I am really mixing metaphors here. You should be glad I edited out the line about "TMI" and the lady in the seat next to me on the bus, talking loudly into her cellphone about her hemorrhoids.)

Some suggestions which might help with all our TMI sentences:
1. There's no reason everything has to go in one sentence. This is especially true in the first paragraph of a book or scene, where good writers often try to accomplish too many tasks. A paragraph of 2-3 sentences can also be consumed in one "bite" but won't cause indigestion. :) I always try to simplify the initial sentence by getting rid of deadwood and ornateness, and then see if what's left is one main thought or two or three.
2. With a long complex sentence which must embed a lot of info, starting with the main clause and stringing the additional stuff after can be more comprehensible. You know, I mentally just edited that: Long complex sentences embedding a lot of info can be made more comprehensible by starting with the main clause and stringing the extra stuff afterwards. :)  
You can make even long complex sentences more comprehensible by starting with the main clause.
or... never mind. You're probably getting the idea that I  never write good sentences the first time. And that editing doesn't transform them into great sentences! 

3. It very much helps to know your purpose. What exactly do we want to convey about this moment in Paula's life, about her relationship with Harriet? Sometimes we get caught up in the mechanics of pronoun reference and modifying clauses and simultaneous action, and forget what it is we want the reader to get. Is this paragraph supposed to tell us that Paula's a secret alcoholic? Or is it supposed to hint at the reason Harriet hates Paula? Or is it supposed to lead into the big moment later in the chapter where Paula writes her resignation letter? What's the point? Is the point actually there in the sentence? 

4. What's essential info? Sometimes it actually helps to break a sentence full of information into a series of declarative info-bytes, and then put it back together. That is, go back to New Writer's "in the moment" syntactic simplicity, only lose all the vapidity. And edit.
Paula is (emotion).
Harriet pours out a dacquiri.
Dacquiris are made with rum.
They don't have a dacquiri glass, so they have to use a martini glass.
Paula says something. (What?)
She tries to make her voice humble.
But she's too used to command. (So what happens?)
Etc. And of course, these are not supposed to end up as disparate sentences. They're just info-bytes that can end up in the sentences after re-writing and editing. It's a matter of outlining so you can organize.

5. Sentence combining is all about coordination and subordination. What goes together and why and how? What's more important than what? How can those relationships be shown using conjunctions and modifiers like "but" and "then" and such? 

6. Most of what we write takes place in time. (That is, this happens, and then that happens, and about the same time, this other thing happened, and finally this big thing happened because of that third thing happening. :) Time marker words like "then" and "now" and "after" and "when" conjoin events but also efficiently organize the process of the paragraph action.

7. Some information might feel important, but is so intrinsic it doesn't have to be said. For example, I ended that last sentence with "for the reader:" ...but also efficiently organize the process of the paragraph action for the reader.  Then I realized that of course this was for the reader. Who else would care about the process of the paragraph? However, many writers leave out essentials thinking they're intrinsic-- better to put in too much and have to take it out later.

8. You can simplify by diminishing. That is, diminish a sentence to a clause, a clause to a participial phrase, a participial phrase to a prepositional phrase, a phrase to a modifier (adjective or adverb). So, frex, 
With a hasty movement, he put on his hat which was red.
can become
He hastily put on his red hat.
Okay, that's too simple, but really, this common writerly fear of modifiers has often resulted in ungainly subject phrases dragging a chain of adjectival relative clauses, and predicate phrases with distant adverbial pseudo-preposition orphans. If you want to modify, use modifying WORDS. Stephen King really won't rebuke you for it, I promise.

9. Can you make it pretty? I mean, workaholics aren't stylish. (Quick edit: started that as, "I mean, the trouble with workaholics is that they always slump around without much style." See, I need editing too... no shame in it. But but but... I can definitely imagine a prose situation where I might want to slow things down and pontificate a bit-- hence "the trouble with workaholics is that..." Just not here.) The difference between a workaholic sentence and a great sentence is often that style, that swing, that just-gosh-darn-enjoyment of words and sentences and prose. (And that "voice" is often what distinguishes the great writers.)
In the end, there should be not a single sentence or thought in your scene that doesn't-- oops. Double negative. Try this:
When you're done, every sentence should sing with your voice. In tune. 
Yes. I mean it. I should be able to isolate any sentence in your scene, read it aloud, and "hear" you. (Okay. Maybe we'll exempt the one-word sentences. Maybe.) I know that's expecting a lot, and that might be a "final revision" task, not a task for the editing pass. But that just goes to show that most of us should be drafting, reworking, editing, and prettying, not necessarily in that order, but eventually.

Your turn.

Your turn! Have at it. I'm going to give that sentence over to you guys for fixing. Rules:
  • It has to be one paragraph, but it doesn't have to be one sentence.
  • Don't add or subtract essential information, but feel free to drop inessential information.
  • While you're at it, please fix the pronoun-referent problem here: as Harriet poured rum-powered juice into her martini glass, Paula....(Whose glass is it? Two women, one "her".)
 Then, as Harriet poured rum-powered juice into her martini glass, Paula worked hard to put a humble note into her voice, but the self-confidence inspired by three dacquiris kept threatening to send her into her more accustomed role of commander-in-chief.
 (Now I'm thinking I better google to find out whether there's a "c" in "dacquiri"-- I keep changing, and I could just LOOK IT UP. EEK! It's DAIQUIRI! You can tell I haven't drunk enough of 'em.)



Unknown said...

Paula thanked Harriet for the refill, making an effort to gentle her tone, but the words still came out clipped and gruff; alcohol always summoned the natural leader, and Paula was too accustomed to being in command to change now. They’d never had daiquiris in martini glasses before. Since this was Paula’s third, and she was feeling a pleasant buzz, she raised her glass, silently toasting Harriet’s ability to improvise.

Alicia said...

I like the way you deal with the "her" glass problem. I'd probably replace the semicolon with a period, just because Some People Around Here would disapprove. :)I like the way you use an action (raising the glass) to close the passage out. You're making clear what the relationship is... Paula's usually in charge.
That "They'd never had" sentence sort of leads into the toasting/improvise. But... I wonder if you might have Paula almost say something like "she almost pointed out that these weren't daiquiri glasses, something "commanding", but not sure how to do that.
Anyway, good revision. There's so much more focus and -movement- from the start of the paragraph to the end.

Anonymous said...

Paula tried to be humble. She tried by how she thanked Harriet for her third dacquiri, although Harriet served it in a martini glass. She tried to be humble, but the rum wanted her to tell Harriet to put her drink in the correct glass. Paula had been Harriet's boss not too long ago, so it was hard for her to ignore the rum.

Whirlochre said...

Great post. Here's my take.

Hariet shook the dacquiri bottle in my face. "How in hell do you pronounce this, anyway?"

"Die," I said, "as in 'you're dead'. Then 'curry'."

"Ha! Lol! You want another?"

I set down my Martini glass, unable to stifle a shrug. "We using a tumbler this time?"

Christ. Rum. I fucking hate the stuff. Makes me so goddamn rude.

Unknown said...

What a great exercise. I can't wait to see what everyone does with this.

Harriet poured a third rum-powered daiquiri into Paula’s martini glass. The alcohol wasn’t helping Paula keep a humble tone to her ‘thank you’ and the appreciative words came out stilted from the commander-in-chief.

Edittorrent said...

Anon, I like that way of "trying" to be humble. I'd say come back to that in the end of the paragraph, maybe something snarky like "She should have fired Harriet." What do you think? That goes with the sort of exasperated tone.

Whirl, putting it in first-person really releases the voice, don't you think? Good choice.

Sarah, that's a good connection, that the drink should help her be humble, but nooooo.

Anonymous said...

Anon here. While I wrote this, I was confronted by a question, "Why would a woman need to be humble when talking to former employee?"

I didn't know how far I could push this, otherwise I would have offered one answer to the question: she's shmoozing for a job when she needs a job, maybe desperately.

Emma Darwin said...

Terrific post - and it's lovely to see someone demonstrating what I'm always going on about: it's not the length of the sentence that's the problem, it's the relationship and ordering of the elements that matters.

How has it taken me so long to find you? Delighted that I have, anyway!