Saturday, September 29, 2012

More about long sentences

I promised to show you some lovely long sentences and give you some more tips on how to wrangle long sentences. So let's start by looking at this trio of beauties from Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth." She tends to write long, languid sentences, and her writing never loses its lucidity. So she's always the first writer I reach for when I'm looking for ways to manage long sentences without mangling the meaning. We'll highlight the clauses this time as we did before -- yellow for subjects, green for the verbs, and blue for direct objects.

 Each time, she kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator, and on the days he was scheduled to fly she watched the news, to make sure there hadn't been a plane crash anywhere in the world.

It was a one-sided correspondence; his trips were brief enough so that there was no time for Ruma to write back, and besides, he was not in a position to receive mail on his end.

She'd slept in shabby pensions, practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now.

The first thing you should notice is that she always keeps her clauses together. You don't see anything that splits a subject noun apart from its verb, such as --

She each time kept the printout....
She in shabby pensions had slept...

Right away, we can see how dividing those clauses would weaken the sentences. Even with just a few words (six words in each example above), the meaning is a little harder to grasp. Imagine what would happen if those intervening pieces were extremely long --

The car which refused to start on a warm day let alone on a cold day like this snowy January Tuesday that found the elderly lady huddling deep into her old wool coat coughed sluggishly.

(My example. Lahiri would be incapable of such an abomination.) By the time we get to the word "coughed," we have no idea which noun is sick. We've lost track of the subject through all those dependent bits shoved in the middle there. The car is the subject noun, and coughed is the verb that forms the main clause with that subject noun. It's not a fragment. It's just a mess. There are, what, maybe 30 words between the subject noun and its verb? But even if the intervening word soup is brief -- "each time" is only two words in the scrambled bit of Lahiri's sentence above -- the basic sentence will be weaker because the sturdy foundation of subject-verb will have been broken.

So that's our first observation, which we had already started to discuss in the last color-coded post on this topic. Keep the subject nouns and their verbs close together. She does the same thing with the direct objects of the verbs -- they're kept snuggled tight to their verbs. If you break those apart, you also hurt the sentence, like so--

Each time, she kept behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator the printout of his flight information ,

This isn't a technical error. It's just not as graceful. It's a little harder to read, and the readers will probably have to slow down their reading speeds to absorb the meaning. This isn't usually the effect we want.

So, keep that basic foundational unit of the clause -- subject/verb/direct object -- locked tightly together, and the writing gains clarity. There are a couple of other things we see here that are likely to help, too. Notice, for example, that when she has a piece to create a temporal orientation for the clause, she puts it before the subject:

 Each time, she kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator, and on the days he was scheduled to fly she watched the news

The temporal cues help orient the reader toward exactly how the events unfold. This is particularly important in a long sentence like this one, which has two temporal orientations. "Each time" refers to an event that occurs at one span of time, and "on the days" refers to a specific point within that span. The sentence would lose some clarity if those temporal modifiers were moved --

She kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator each time, and she watched the news on the days he was scheduled to fly

A subtle difference, perhaps, but one with an evident effect on clarity. There is an exception in the final sentence, which ends with the temporal modifier placed directly next to the verb it modifies:

She'd slept in shabby pensions, practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now.

That temporal modifier doesn't describe any part of the sentence other than the part it's right next to. And what is the golden rule of modifiers? Modifiers go next to the words they modify. So we couldn't really move that adverb "now" to any other spot in the sentence without either damaging the meaning or, in the case of "her father now sent," losing some grace.

In most of the sentences, most of the descriptive bits follow the clauses. Alicia and I have observed plenty of times before now that certain forms of dependent pieces just seem to work better when they follow the independent clauses. This is particularly evident with cumulative present participial phrases, such as the pair in that last sentence --

She'd slept in shabby pensions, practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now.

The purple-ish words are present participles leading into present participial phrases. This form of phrase is ripe for abuse, and if you've been reading this blog for any stretch of time, you've certainly heard us rant about the numerous problems they can cause. In this case, the first (practicing) is a cumulative modifier that adds meaning to the entire independent clause it follows. So that works, I think -- and in general, these kinds of cumulative modifiers work best at the end of a sentence. Look what happens when we try to reverse that--

Practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, she'd slept in shabby pensions, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now.

It's not dreadful, but now we have a problem with that final phrase ("buying"), which feels misplaced because it actually modifies the first present participial phrase rather than the independent clause. So we would have to move that, too--

Practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now, she'd slept in shabby pensions.

And that doesn't work because it throws the postcards and the pensions right next to each other, and that is a little disruptive to the meaning.

Anyway, this all boils down to three tips for long sentences:
1. Keep the clauses together.
2. Put temporal modifiers before the clauses when you have more than one time element to contend with.
3. Back-load the sentences with the other additional material, including cumulative modifiers.

None of these rules are carved on stone tablets, but I think you'll find that they help more often than they hurt.


Friday, September 28, 2012

Prioritizing prepositions

The smell reminded her of her schooldays near Boston back in Amherst when she had worked in the library on the quadrangle in front of the admin building at the circulation desk.
Prepositions are those little words that show some "positioning" in time, space, or idea. Usually they connect two nouns-- with the main noun modified a prepositional phrase with the other noun as an object. Problem is, prepositional phrases, as modifiers, should be adjacent to the modified noun. But what happens, as so often does, when we have a series of prepositional phrases? We end up with monstrosities like the above sentence.

First:, recognize the problem. Learn what constitutes a prepositional phrase: (preposition word) (noun or phrase). Notice that stacking any prepositional phrases in a sentence almost always results in chaos-- why? Because prep phrases have to modify a noun, and the further they get from that noun, the more likely there is to be confusion. Accept that and try to avoid the whole stacking problem. Also notice in revision and resolve to fix.

Second, understand that the object of the preposition is a noun too, usually, and can sprout its own modifying prepositional phrases. So IN the LIBRARY modifies worked (yeah, I know, that's an adverbial function, and I have to think why... the verb is probably "worked in," but I'll come back to that after lunch when I can think).
But "library" has its own modifier:

NEAR the quadrangle

And "quadrangle" has its own modifier-- this is the quadrangle near the admin building.
IN FRONT OF the admin building.

That's sort of clunky, but understandable, until we stick in "at the circulation desk" which modifies not admin building, not quadrangle, but 'library" (where in the library she worked). (Would you put that before or after? She worked at the circ desk in the library, or She worked in the library at the circ desk? Why?)

Third, prioritize. When there are so many prepositional phrases, the reader is going get lost even if they're assembled in the right order. What's important to this moment of the story? She's looking back nostalgically at her schooldays. There's also some smell that reminds her (so she might think about a smell). She might be nostalgic about working in the library, but the positioning of the library on the campus probably isn't that important. So why put it in, if there's no need? Try changing a prep phrase to an adjective word-- "in Amherst" becomes "Amherst schooldays" or "Amherst library." Strip this down to essentials, and if you want to deepen the texture, give more sense of the setting, well, don't draw a map. Talk about the ivy on the stone walls or the dust on the library shelves or something evocative (and, given the sentence opening, something olfactory if possible).

The smell reminded her of her Amherst schooldays when she had worked at the library circulation desk, stamping books and breathing in the ink and dust.

This is a common issue with good writers who know they have to imbed information into each sentence so it adds to the meaning and the texture of the passage. That is, the more accomplished you are, the more likely your first draft will occasionally have one of these preposition-bristling sentences. Here's one modeled structurally on one I just saw in a generally well-edited news magazine:

The firing happened a little more than two weeks after Luigi's mistake of telling his boss to take a flying leap while at work in a meeting with the whole staff in the conference room.

 Have at it. This is actually tougher than it looks. :)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Today at RU

Today at Romance University, I'm looking at an opening that's told in journal form. It's not a favored form these days. What do you think of it?


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wrangling Long Sentences

We talked recently about this myth that all sentences should be short -- utter nonsense, but the kind of pervasive nonsense that has just enough truth in it to keep it alive. Short sentences are usually (but not always) easy to read. Are they easy to read because of their length, though, or because of other factors?

A basic sentence has either two or three core parts.

The boy jumped.

Subject-verb-direct object.
The boy kicked the ball.

I'm going to color coordinate these elements so that we can see them better when we look at longer sentences.We'll use yellow for subjects, green for verbs, and that pretty robin's egg blue for direct objects. For right now, I want you to notice that these colors are right next to each other. Yellow-green, with nothing in between. Yellow-green-blue, stuck together like glue. These pieces work together to form units, basic units of meaning, that make complete thoughts. The boy and the jumping action go together to make one idea. Remove either piece, and we lose meaning. Ditto for the boy and the kicking action and the ball. These three parts join together to make one unit of meaning.

That joining is important. That joining is what creates meaning. Imperfect joinings, like fragments and run-ons, either break the pieces apart or jam too many pieces together. We talk a lot about the fact that in fiction, fragments and run-ons are permissible to indicate natural dialect, but we always issue a warning: It must still be easy to read. It cannot be awkward. It cannot be confusing.

When we start to add extra meaning to the sentence through the addition of words, phrases, and clauses, we have the same kinds of concerns. Extra pieces, added incorrectly, can be distracting, confusing, and unclear. John Gardner advocates for limiting any such additions to only one piece of the sentence. That is, if we add more words to the subject to add meaning, we should not also add words to the verb and direct object. Choose one piece, elaborate, and leave the rest alone.

This is a pretty good rule of thumb, but it's still open to abuse.

Subject-verb-direct object.
The boy kicked the ball, whooping and hollering with joy.

See that last participial phrase? This phrase adds meaning to only one part of the sentence, as Gardner advocates, but it will still read "off" to most people. Why? Because it develops the subject, but it is next to the direct object -- a misplaced modifier. This is what happens when we color it.

Subject-verb-direct object.
The boy kicked the ball, whooping and hollering with joy.
When we do that, it's pretty easy to see that these pieces belong together but have been split apart. Move the colors together, and the meaning will be more clear and the sentence will be more smooth.

Subject-verb-direct object.
Whooping and hollering with joy, the boy kicked the ball.
This is how you control a long sentence. You keep the subject and verb close together -- yellow and green with nothing between. You keep the subject, verb, and object close together -- yellow, green, and blue, stuck together like glue. And then you make sure that any added pieces are close to the parts they link to.

I have some lovely long sentences I want to share with you, so that you can see this principle in action in more complicated sentences. We'll do that next time.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

The five bad habits of good writers

I did a guest blog in the spring for Jane Perrine on the Five Bad Habits of Good Writers, and thought I'd move it over. I start with the person/writer and end up with the businessperson/writer.
 1. Bad habit: Thinking that you have only one book in you. Many writers start out because they want to tell one particular story, a story that’s been inside them for a long time. They write that story in a white heat, and then… then what? Are they done being a writer now that they’ve written that one book? No. If you have one book in you, you have more than one book in you. In fact, now that you’ve gotten this story down, the story that has preoccupied you for years, you might find that you’re liberated now to invent new stories. And you’ve learned something about your writing process and about the structure of a story that will help you when sheer inspiration fails. (And besides, you can always write a sequel to Book #1. Did the Harry Potter series end after his first year at Hogwarts?)

2. Bad habit: Writing 3-chapter proposals, one after another. It’s tempting, yes, to just move on if an idea doesn’t work or a proposal doesn’t sell. But don’t get into that habit. Serial quitting wreaks havoc with our writing process, makes us feel like impostors instead of real novelists, and leaves us empty-handed when an editor says, “What else you got?” And now, when we can sell our books directly to the reader with indie publishing, it’s great to have a few uncontracted novels to put up for sale. But no one is going to buy a dozen partial books. Try to push past that third chapter and finish at least a sketchy first draft. You’ll probably find you fall in love with the book!

3. Bad habit: Deciding you’re good enough and have nothing to learn. You’re never good enough. You’ve always got more to learn. We all do. The moment you decide you know enough and write well enough, that’s the moment you stop being a writer and become a hack. You don’t want to be a hack, do you? Of course not. So with every book you start, determine what you want to learn, whether it’s how to design an action scene or how to hide clues or how to embed more metaphor into your verbs. And then apply yourself to that lesson. Do research. Experiment. Find models in authors who do that aspect well. This will make the writing process more interesting, and will also help individualize each book. And finally, this will help you stay current with what’s going on in fiction, as you’ll be open to new ideas and new techniques.

4. Bad habit: Making business relationships personal. Your agent is not your mother, and your editor is not your friend. You might think they’re terrific. They might think you’re terrific. But let me brutally frank here. You have to be emotionally able to fire the agent if she stops working for you. You must be ready to stay with a publisher that has fired your favorite editor.  Loyalty is a virtue, but temper that with discretion. Too many writers have thrown their lot in with another industry professional who doesn’t in fact have the writer’s best interest front and center. (Nothing wrong with that—everyone must deal with her own career.) This is not a big problem unless you make the relationship personal, so personal loyalty is expected on one or both sides. I’m speaking as someone who made this error and couldn’t fire an agent who just about tanked my career. (We were best buds! How could I fire her when she was losing all those other clients? Was I going to be a traitor too?) Business relationships are about business. Save your love for your family and friends.

5. Bad habit: Forgetting that this is all about the reader. When we start to write, quite naturally it’s all about us. We have a story to tell or a problem to work out.  Then when we start to submit, it’s going to be all about the agent and editor—we want to craft the query letter and the book to capture the attention of the elite industry professional who can make our publishing dreams come true. That’s all perfectly normal. The danger comes when we forget that the whole purpose of writing novels is to connect with readers. When we do what touches or moves or surprises our reader, we will be fulfilling our mission. This means we have to stop being defensive. If our work doesn’t entertain the readers, we should find out why. Often we can make that connection without losing what we personally love about our story—but we can’t get to that point if we decide the reader doesn’t matter. The reader matters most of all. That’s why we write.
The publishing world is changing radically, and we have to change with it. So next year, I might have five different bad habits to report!

So— can you add to this list? What are bad writing habits you notice in yourself and other writers?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Action sentencing

There's a lot of action that isn't really exciting. So I don't mean explosions or running from the aliens or carefully digging a hole for the rose bush. I mean the getting from one place to another type of action, the necessary and maybe even significant action of the character through the scene.

I'd just suggest not to treat this like "something to rush through." Instead, think of how even this can be made meaningful, adding to the reader's experience of the scene. Couple suggestions, both having to do with the action within time-- how long it takes.

1) If it's an activity that takes awhile, like paying the bills, think of interspersing the discrete actions with introspection. That is, this is a good opportunity to put in some of that introspection you've been holding back on. Break the activity down into five or so distinct actions:

  • She gathers all the supplies-- bills, checkbook, envelopes, stamps. (This will take at least a minute, remember. and now I'm trying to think of the last time I wrote a check... okay. She turns on the computer and waits for it to boot up.)
  • She goes to her bank website and to the "Pay Bills" tab.
  • She checks the first bill-- $1000 for the credit card.
  • She goes back to the account page to check her balance.
  • She pays that bill.
  • She pays another bill.
  • She pays a third bill.
  • She goes back and sees if she has any money left.
  • She closes the computer.

Plenty of time for her to be thinking about how much she hates her job (connection to bill-paying? Slide in early that she notices her paycheck has been deposited). By the end of the billpaying, what's changed? Does she decide to quit the job?
That is-- see if you can make the activity somehow reflective of whatever conundrum she's considering. And if you can, have the combined activity and introspection end in a decision.

2.  If you're having to describe a sequence of actions that don't all add up, still think about how long they combined will take. Let's say that he is leaving his office after work. So he's going to what? Altogether, how much time? If it's just a couple minutes, think about having it be a transition between two scenes (one in office, one wherever he's going), and put it in one paragraph at the start of a new scene. But remember, if nothing significant happens, or he doesn't think something fun, it's probably not worth spending a paragraph on... so put in something significant. He walks out of the office building, and what does he see? What happens? He gets splashed by a cab going by? He sees his boss going into a bar across the street?
Just to keep this coherent, group sequential actions together. Don't mix them in a sentence unless you have reason to mix them.
For example, in sentence one, start:
The clock struck five, and Rory looked up from his work. Quittin' time.
Then move to the action, pack up his briefcase--
He rose, and grabbed his briefcase and jammed in his laptop and the Olsen file.
Then move to the next bit of action.
In the elevator, he closed his eyes and tried to remember what he had planned for the evening. 
Finish the paragraph and the action sequence, but remember your purpose isn't just to get him out of the office building, but....?
The crowd on the ground floor bore him out into the dark street. There, across the street, under a streetlamp, was Meredith. Waiting for him.

So don't settle for pedestrian, and while you're at it, make it understandable for the reader. Watch your sentencing and paragraphing. Those are how you tell the reader what actions and/or thought/realizations/perceptions go together.

Most important, though, don't waste the space. If it's not important, don't narrate it. Just bridge the time:
New scene (Later in his apartment)
If it is important, if something meaningful occurs, show it.

Also, group steps in the same order they occur in life. For example, if he's leaving the office, and he takes his coffee mug to the sink and rinses it, fine to put all that in one sentence:
He took his mug to the sink and rinsed it.
But don't put that discrete "coffee mug" step into the same sentence as packing his briefcase: NOT
He took his coffee mug to the sink. He rinsed it and packed his briefcase.
See the problem there? There must be some pause (like a PERIOD and SPACE) between the sink and his briefcase, because they are two separate actions, not steps within an action. They're separate, involving different movements (washing/packing), different objects (mug/briefcase), and different places (sink, desk). Two sentences.
Always keep that in mind-- the sentencing should replicate in its imperfect way the way the action takes place. What goes together in a sentence should belong together.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Your favorite sentence from a book or article?

I'm lecturing in a class where they're learning sentence patterns, and I thought maybe it would be fun if we all contributed favorite sentences and then figured out in the construction why they're so good. Can you help me with some material? From a book or article you've enjoyed, by someone you consider a good stylist-- can you post a great sentence? Please give the author and title in case the students want to find the book!

I have to post this one because it's from a book many of us will have read, and it's so punchy and to the point yet also sort of doom-ridden.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Stephen King, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger

So-- favorite sentences? (If you have to post two to give the context, that's fine.) Thanks! Some with more complicated construction than the above would be good, because I want them to diagram the sentences.

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.)


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

More on automated grammar programs

I've blogged in the past about my experiences test-driving grammar and style software. Through my work in publishing and at the university, I've had the opportunity to test several different systems, and none of them have come close to being satisfactory. Even MSWord's built-in grammar checker -- which is notorious for its inadequacies -- is several generations ahead of most of the other programs available today. I am not, you might guess, a fan of any of them.

I'm not alone. This topic came up on a mailing list for academics recently, and some of my colleagues there shared a couple of links to other test results. I thought I'd link them here for those of you who are toying with investing in some of this software. (Don't bother. They're a waste of money.)

The Economist: Grammarly Revisited

The Chronicle: These Cards Always Lie

Before you dismiss these opinions because they examine academic writing rather than creative writing, let me assure you, this should not be a selling point. The rules of academic grammar are less fluid and less forgiving than the rules of creative writing. It should be easier to apply academic rules, simply because there's less deviation from those rules. Creative writing is full of judgment calls, colloquialisms, and allowable "errors" like fragments and run-ons. If a software program cannot properly identify where a sentence begins and ends, how will it ever distinguish between a good fragment and a bad one? No, this academic/creative distinction doesn't help matters at all.


Monday, September 3, 2012

From the "Bad Advice" File

I just happened to stumble across a blog post elsewhere containing what I consider to be bad advice. (Hey, Alicia, maybe we should start a "Bad Advice" file. God knows it would soon rival our collection of crappy participial phrases!)  I won't out the source, but the basic advice boiled down to this:

Write short sentences. If you write long sentences, you suck.

This bothers me on so many levels that it's a little hard to articulate all the ways it bothers me. Some long sentences are marvels of good writing, lucid and crisp and elegant despite the length. And some short sentences are dull beyond belief. Yet, there's a kernel of wisdom underlying the bad advice, so we can't just discard it outright.

I read somewhere -- some academic study long since lost in the mist of memory -- that readers can most easily grasp the ideas in a sentence when that sentence contains 18 or fewer words. I don't remember much else about that paper. There was some discussion of methodology (not every 18-word sentence is built alike), but I can't remember the specifics. What sticks with me is that number, 18, and some of the reasoning behind it. Most sentences run around 5 to 15 words long. There is a vanishing point on the low end, but a long sentence can become even longer, and longer still, without ever hitting a similar vanishing point. There's simply no limit to how long a sentence can be. In fact, in school, we did writing exercises that required us to write super-long sentences of 250 or more words.  Those were fun, challenging exercises that I hope to never do again. ;)

So, why 18 words? It's nothing to do, as I recall, with how the specific sentences are written. It is just that we're used to something shorter. If most sentences are 5-15 words, then most readers are acclimated to grasping sentences around that length. An extra 3 words on the top end probably wouldn't make much difference -- an extra adjective here or there, maybe another prepositional phrase, but really, another three words likely won't add much more weight to a sentence.

Yet, there are plenty of writers generating long, languid, highly lucid sentence with scads more than 18 words. Jhumpa Lahiri comes to mind. She writes beautiful sentences, and many of them are long chains of clauses in a series. You might have some favorite writers of long sentences, too. These writers demonstrate that sentence length is not a barrier to reader comprehension, to good storytelling, or to writing quality.

What is important is that long sentences be clear. That's the rub. It's not that a long sentence is per se bad. It's just that they provide more opportunities for confusion. But if you can generate a clear, strong, ultra-long sentence, then don't hold back just because there's a bias toward short sentences. It might be just what you need in that spot of the manuscript to add a perfect grace note, no matter how the academics count the words.