Monday, November 2, 2009

Test-driving Sentences

From time to time you are tempted to plunk yourself into a sentence, take it out for a test drive, then cruise about with it to see where it takes you, a ride you undertake whether in an essay, review, short story, or, in most recent days, something  you see growing its way into a novel.  Even when you are not consciously tempted to pursue the meander of a long sentence, you discover, in the retrospect of revision, that you have done so, noticing to your horror that your sentence has overflowed its levees and wreaked on the work at hand the same kind of damage Katrina visited upon New Orleans.  Guillaume Doane, erstwhile managing editor of the weekly at which your book review is expected no later than Sunday night, once emailed you to ask if you were really comfortable with a seventy-four word sentence.  Aghast, you revisited the offense, pared it down to three manageable sentences.

This tendency to the long sentence is one of your dualities, another being the spectrum between your dead-on, serious-to-the-point-of-boring sentence and your mischief-inducing sentence.  As far back as high school, a teacher suggested middle-of-the-road to you, but middle-of-the-road is not you; you would rather risk the boredom that comes from overly serious composition and the outrage of the mischief inducement, playing them one against the other in some narrative counterpoint.

Your great pal, Barnaby Conrad, introduced an exercise at his Santa Barbara Writers' Conference workshops, the five-hundred-word sentence.  The results are nearly always staggering, the most notable being Fannie Flagg's product which, as she describes it in her wonderful lilt, not only won the nonfiction prize the year she tried it, as well it stayed with her and would not let go until she had fleshed it out to where it became Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe.  

There was a time when you were still thinking journalism was the money market of your writing career and you were with Associated Press, where an intensive study had been undertaken, the results eagerly broadcast to all AP employees:  the optimal length of a news story sentence is seventeen words.  Beyond that, reader interest declines in direct proportion to excess words.  Ah, what a period will do for readability.  Dover,England.  (AP)  Nobody tried to swim the English Channel today.  Maybe tomorrow.  

Mischief and formulae, yet another point of duality

You are firm in your belief that a sentence, however long or brief, must contain clear information or implication or both, the operant word there being clear, as in clarity.  That said, you throw the caution of word length to the winds.  Short is good; long is good, but boring is unacceptable.

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