Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Fussing with Sentences

As I teach my summer writing workshop while working on a piece of fiction, I continue to think about style and the way fussing with sentences is at the heart of prose style.

Four years ago, I would tell my students that my experience has convinced me that I am strictly a writer of non-fiction, having published various books, articles, reviews, etc., some academic, many not.

Now I can say that I am having fun as a fiction writer. But I am learning that my enthusiasm for long, cumulative, rolling sentences that have the elegance, surprise and wit that people like Gay Talese bring to them does not always apply to fiction as it does to literary non-fiction.

At least, not when the point of view is first person. In my present draft of a novel, as in my first published story, I have my narrator-protagonist talk directly to the reader, and only rarely can he use the kind of sentences I admire. They are too artful, too literary.

My second story, however, told from an omniscient point of view, can put such sentences to good use, but still sparingly.  I found that the following sentence about an obnoxious high school principal named Mrs. Wicker (who is challenged by a veteran teacher named Crane) should be broken into three sentences.

I wrote: Mrs. Wicker, her mouth flung open, her penciled eyebrows lost in the furrows of her wrinkled forehead, was rendered speechless by Mr. Crane's finest hour.  I was pleased with that sentence until I listened to it.

My revision:  Mrs. Wicker gaped, her penciled eyebrows disappearing into the furrows of her wrinkled forehead.  She was rendered speechless. This was Mr. Crane's finest hour.

I like the force of the opening verb 'gaped' and the punch given to the second and third sentences.

Sometimes three sentences have more emphasis than one elaborate one. It took me five or more rewrites to get this sentence to sound right. Now, you might ask, is all this bother worthwhile?

If you are a writer, you would never ask such a question. When he was asked what problem caused him to revise the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times, Hemingway said simply, "Getting the words right." He knew that fussing with words is what writing is all about.

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