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On being kind to horses

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.
Especially heart*.

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.
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. Wow, what a great post. I'm still in high school, and this is how I write essays (knowing full well what I'm doing):

    "The stunning lines, awesome forms and grand creative vision found within a quality work of architecture posseses the power to uplift the mood and perhaps even the day of a spectator. In stark contrast, the architecture of Howard Roark possesses nothing less than the ability to change lives."

    LOL. That's painful already, but the worst part is that my English teachers consistently LOVE it. "Great description!" "Captivating!"

    It hurts my soul, but it gets me A's. What's a girl to do?

  2. Leila, this post bears reading several times. Awesome job.

    I need to gather my thoughts on this and leave a better comment!

  3. You are kind of brilliant. I <3 this post.

  4. This is such an awesome post, Leila. My English teachers did so much damage to me with their insistence that I use other words besides said. It took me so long to break that habit! And ahh, the adverbs. I remember all the times spent in thesauruses trying to find the most creative adverbs, and we all thought we were just so clever. (I still <3 my english teachers though).

  5. Such an amazing post! Sometimes as writers, we focus so much on building stories, but it's the individual sentences that are the structure holding it all together.
    Just amazing thoughts, Leila.

  6. I went through the SAME educations and realizations you did. Thank you for putting it into such beautiful words (and sentences)!

    I can't wait to read your book.

  7. Wonderful post, Leila. I can't wait to read your novel - you have such a way with words. And your teaching in this post is spot on - a very important lesson taught in the best way possible with lots of examples and care. In my current WIP I'm especially careful with my sentences and words, for the very reasons you mention. But I couldn't have said it as well as you. Excellent.

  8. I'm glad you all liked it. It's stuff that I think about every day but until yesterday I'd never really tried to explain it to anyone, and I was worried it wouldn't make much sense. :-P

    @Emilia: In school and then university, I mostly gave my teachers what they asked for. Or what I thought they wanted. These days I kind of regret that and wish I had taken more risks. Then again, I did get good marks, so it's not like it didn't pay off.

    I don't know what I'd do if I could go back and do it all over again. I know the dilemma.

    If it makes you feel any better, by the end of my time at uni, I had lecturers who I'm pretty sure loved good sentences as much as I did. Although often I was too scared to write them. From memory, high school was a lot more prescriptive about everything. Once it ends, there's a lot more freedom.

  9. Awesome post!

    I grew up devouring Historical Romance and let me tell you, those pack horses must have been hobbling along on their last legs. I tend to go the other way and go too sparse. There is a happy, hand holding place that walks the balance and finding it is genius. Too bad we learn the wrong way first!

  10. Great post, Leila! I loved the transition from "never start a sentence with 'and then'" followed by a sentence beginning with "and then." Way to show 'em there are times to break rules!

  11. What a great way to visualize your writing!

    My writing obsession has always been with the specific words, but the sentences are a very close second. I blogged earlier this month about how writing formal, structured poetry helps me to relax my need to obsess over it in my fiction. I found it very helpful and a lot of fun.

    As someone who loves sentences, you might enjoy this:

    This is not a sales pitch, since I borrowed this course for free from my public library. It's pretty deep, but I learned a lot of things about sentences I thought I already knew yet it turned out I knew incompletely.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful, inspiring post!



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Item Reviewed: On being kind to horses Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin