I have a confession to make. A deeply nerdy confession.
I’m obsessed with sentences.
I spend a great deal of my life thinking about sentences, about what makes them good and what makes them bad, and why it is that some of them sing and some of them make you feel like you’re listening to someone grinding their teeth and cracking their knuckles simultaneously.
When I first learnt creative writing at school, teachers always had all this stuff to impart about how to write sentences. I’m not blaming them; it was probably part of the curriculum. There were all these things to remember, like ‘There should ALWAYS be a verb’, and ‘Don’t make sentences too long but don’t make them too short either’ and ‘DON’T ever start anything with ‘And then’.
And then there was that particularly glorious one, ‘Replace everything with the strongest word possible’. Remember that one, the one where you had to load up your sentences like little packhorses? Why use ‘said’ where you could use ‘cried’? And why leave it at that? Throw in an adverb too! ‘My heart is broken!’ he cried desperately. But you don’t even have to stop there! You should put more of those striking words in, those words that go wham, right? As I wrote these sentences full of wham words, I felt that something was wrong. But I couldn’t quite work out what it was. It was almost like a noise at the back of my head. ‘My longing filled heart is broken,’ he cried desperately, and imploringly turned his golden head to the savagely stormy grey sky.
Yup. I’ve broken something alright. But it’s not someone’s heart, it’s the sentence. The poor little horse fell over only a few words in. That noise at the back of my head? That was the sound of dying horses.
They were carrying too much.
A few years after my first creative writing classes, someone leant me Everything I Know About Writing, by John Marsden. And at some point quite early on, he points out that it’s really not a good idea to write sentences like that. Even if your teacher encourages it. And Eureka. I was thirteen years old, and I'd just had the biggest writing revolution of my whole life. I had to teach myself how to write all over again.
I started thinking about words in terms of weight. Some words are always going to be far heavier than others. Let’s look at the sentence from before. There are a few lightweight words, words the horse isn’t going to notice all that much: my, is, he, and, his, to, the. Then there are a couple which are sort of middling: turned, head, grey, sky. And then there are a bunch that weigh an absolute tonne: longing filled, heart, broken, cried, desperately, imploringly, golden, savagely, stormy. I’m going to count longing filled as one word, because the two are acting as a kind of compound. (A horrible Jeff-Goldblum-turning-into-a-fly kind of compound, but anyway.) Even then, that’s nine. Nine words heavy enough to potentially upset an Olympic weightlifter.
In short, no wonder my horses were suffering.
After I learnt that, I tried keeping all the heavy words out. I went from one extreme to the other; I didn’t want my long suffering horses to have to carry anything heavy at all. And for some writers, that works, and works stunningly. There are writers who write swift, invisible sentences, sentences which move at shotgun speed. There are great books which are almost entirely made up of light sentences. You might get the odd heavy word, but it flicks past so fast that you barely see it, surrounded by so much lightness and speed.
Unfortunately for me, I’m not really that sort of writer.
The more I wrote, the more heavy words started trying to sneak out. I remember writing stories and poetry and thinking to myself, heart, Leila? What are you doing with that word? Put it away before it hurts someone. But the more I read, the more writers I discovered who not only used heavy words, but used them in sentences which worked beautifully. It wasn’t necessarily about avoiding weight at all. It was often how writers distributed it that made the difference.
A packhorse is a dignified creature, as is a sentence. Both can carry a lot. The question isn’t necessarily what, but how. For a start, it pays not to look at sentences by themselves. They work in harmony with the sentences around them. Together, they can create rhythm and build up to things, or slide down again. If you surround a heavy word by the right things, it balances. There isn’t a magic trick to learning it. It’s just a matter of reading as many good sentences as you can find, and thinking of the noise that each sentence makes, of the weight that comes with each word and whether it’s falling in the right place.
Sometimes, in finding their balance, good sentences can slap you in the face with their power.
This is the beginning of Teach Me, by R. A. Nelson:
Welcome to my head.
Let’s hit the ground running. I will get you up to speed. We need a short learning curve here. Those are things my dad likes to say. He works for NASA. He spends his days figuring out problems like this:
If an object weighing 8.75 ounces travelling ten thousand miles per hours strikes the earth, how big a whole does it create?
One exactly the size of my heart.
Call me Nine.
Everybody does. (Razor Bill, 2005, p.1)
Bang. And with that, I could hardly put the book down until I was finished.
And I can’t blog about sentences without quoting Janet Frame at least once, because she wrote some of the best sentences I’ve ever come across. She was definitely not a YA writer, and her writing is about as literary as it gets. I find that when I first read her, it often pays not to worry too much about what she’s trying to say. There’s plenty of time for that later. For now, just enjoy the ride.
... a prose sentence which touches like a branding iron is good. A sentence, which, travelling, looks out of portholes as far as horizons and beyond is good. A sentence which goes to sleep is good, if the season is winter; bad, if it is early spring. A sentence which stumbles on useless objects instead of on buried treasure is bad, and worse if it illuminates useless objects with artificial light, but good if it casts a unique radiance upon them.
A word which is exciting to look at and say and which doesn’t slop its meaning over the side is good; a word which comes up sparkling from the well is good; a word which clusters like last year’s bee around last year’s flower is bad if the flower is already dead, but good if the flower is surviving, beautiful, and alone in a place where flowers have not been known to grow and where bees never swarmed before nor gathered nectar. (Living in the Maniototo, Vintage, reprinted 2006, p.69)
Who writes your favourite sentences?
*Heart is possibly the heaviest word in the entire English language. Love is heavy too, but it can sometimes be light, depending on context. Love in ‘I love boysenberry ice cream’ doesn’t weigh all that much. But heart is heavy almost every time. The only word I can think of which is possibly heavier is death.