Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Freight Train Sentences by Andy Scheer

How many words can one verb pull? Without discouraging the reader.

Since I can't judge a manuscript by its cover, I judge it by the first pages. If those don't promise an engaging story well told, why continue?

Today I'm reviewing fiction first chapters. Next week at the conference, I plan to tell one writer her sentences remind me of an overloaded freight train.

Disclaimer: I like trains. For a dozen years I rode Chicago's light rail to work. In Colorado I've ridden the Durango & Silverton and the Cumbres & Toltec narrow gauge lines. And I know that much of the nation's freight is delivered economically by rail. Every time I drive between Colorado Springs and Denver, I see hundred-car coal trains.

But I've noticed those trains don't use just one engine—or two. To crest the 7,300-foot summit of Monument Hill, they operate with at least two engines in front and an equal number at the rear.

I thought of those long freights when I came to this sentence:

Unable to stop the smile that thoughts of Joe always brought to her face, Nicole nudged the vase of pink plastic daisies in the middle of the table aside and swiped at a pile of crumbs with a damp cloth.

Yes, the sentence has two verbs: nudged and swiped. But it's forty words long. And look at the number of prepositional phrases that have been hooked on like freight cars:

of Joe
to her face
of pink plastic daisies
in the middle
of the table
at a pile
of crumbs
with a damp cloth

Don't worry, Tim. I won't reject a manuscript because of one overly long sentence. But if I soon encounter many of its friends, I'll rightly conclude this author is not a master of direct prose.

Nicole smiled. She nudged aside a vase of pink plastic daisies and wiped the crumbs from the table.


Anonymous said...

I started a book yesterday that was filled with sentences like this. I confess to getting a bit discouraged since I've been on a shorter-sentences kick lately. Glad to know I wasn't wrong.

Thank you!

Patty Wysong said...

Okay, question for you...Is some of this simply style and preference? I don't know how many times I get turned off by short sentences. They feel choppy, even if they are direct and functionally fine. They make me feel like I'm reading a news report or a first grade primer. LoL.

I know balance is key, but some writers tend to use longer sentences while others use shorter, making it a style issue. Even then, though, there needs to be a mix of sentence structure.

Andy Scheer, Hartline Literary said...

Balance is the key. (That's why reading your work aloud is so important.) But there's seldom a good reason for the 40-word sentence like the one I cited.

Cheryl said...

This speaks to the importance of critique groups too. Others will pick up on beefy sentences and suggest changes.

Davalyn Spencer said...

I was taught to use no more than three prepositional phrases in a sentence. And no fragments.

Timothy Fish said...

Like Patty, I also see this as an issue that has much to do with style and preference, because some of us grew up reading the King James Version of the Bible, which has a significant number of sentences that not only reach the forty word mark, but exceed sixty and even eighty words in a single sentence that serves only as a jumping off point for other sentences that, by the mercy of the translators, are separated from the first.

sally apokedak said...

Thanks. I never thought about how many verbs and prepositional phrases were in my sentences. I write by ear, and don't really know how to diagram a sentence. So this post is helpful.

One of my favorite opening lines is from Anne of Green Gables. It's a one-sentence paragraph, containing 148 words. Today the semicolons would be changed to periods, I'm sure, but the sentence, as is, makes perfect sense and doesn't require a lot of work to understand.

Here it is:

Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde's Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde's door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.

I just love that. :)

Kathryn Elliott said...

I’m with Cheryl. A good critique group would be beneficial in this case.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Reading things aloud can help (though it's hard to spot your own mistakes!), but if you can hire a good editor to look over your first pages, you can get a feel for sentence length/structure that works.

I love classics like Anne of Green Gables, Sally, but sometimes I think those sentences could NEVER fly in this short-attention span society we inhabit today! Grin.

Timothy Fish said...

Heather, we could just as easily use "short-attention spans" to justify longer sentences. Since our audience will lose focus at the end of the sentence, we should cram as much into each sentence as we can.

Realistically, if our readers have signed up to read a novel, their attention span probably isn’t short.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Not sure about that. Once the reader determines the sentences are too long/wordy to hold his/her attention, the book will be shelved. UNLESS there is an overwhelming commitment to the book (for instance, I'm reading MIDDLEMARCH b/c I love George Eliot and I WANT to dig for those beautifully poetic sentences). Or sometimes friends recommend things we don't enjoy at first (THE HELP moved very slowly in the beginning), but we stick with them b/c we trust their judgement.

I think in the end, it depends on if you like the writer's style in the first place, and if you know the storyline is about something interesting to you.

I still maintain that long, wordy writing will have an uphill battle in this TV/video game saturated society. It is what it is...and I think classics can be born, even with short sentences. It reflects our culture today.

That said, I still love classics. But I will admit to occasionally speed-reading through the two pages that describe the weather on the moors...that kind of thing.

Chihuahua Zero said...

Stringing together prepositional phrases. I did a blog post on double prepositional phrases, and how they can be used correctly--or not.

But the concept of run-ons of this nature intrigues me. Maybe this is one reason why some run-ons come out sloppy, since prepositional phrases are attachments with additional information, and too many of them linked to each other creates something akin to a paper chain tearing apart.

Timothy Fish said...

Heather, the thing is, I see a lot of things blamed on short attention spans, but I’ve seen very little evidence to indicate that people’s attention spans really are short. If anything, video games are an indication that attention spans are not short. Gamers are known to spend many long hours mastering a game. What I really think is that we shouldn’t determine sentence length by the myth of short attention spans but by what they do to the tone of the work.

Long sentences tend to slow down a scene and give it a more relaxed feel. Short sentences speed up the work and give it a sense of urgency. As for classics, it is the importance of the work that makes a book a classic, not how long the sentences are.

sally apokedak said...

But, Timothy, I have noticed my tastes have changed, whether due to a shortening of the attention span or not. When I was a kid--about twelve--one of my favorite books was The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne. When I was an adult I tried to read it to my children and I was blown away by how archaic the language felt and how the passages of description went on and on and on. I want a story to move a little faster, today. I blame the internet. Rightly or wrongly.