WIR #35: Diplomacy of Wolves

Diplomacy of WolvesLisle, Holly. The Secret Texts, Book 1: Diplomacy of Wolves. New York: Warner Aspect. Copyright © 1998, by Holly Lisle.

Holly Lisle's web site: http://hollylisle.com/
Holly Lisle's blog: http://hollylisle.com/writingdiary2


Yup. Cliffhanger ending. I knew it was coming, as I said earlier. However, I still don't like cliffhanger endings. Every fantasy trilogy or series has them anymore. They're as common as the wet, buttery Rs that the French gargle at the back of their garlic-lined throats.

I'll start by saying that I have enjoyed the story thus far, but I do have some quibbles.

The first thing that struck me happened about 120-125 pages into the novel. It wasn't something that happened very often, but it happened often enough that it annoyed me. I'll give you an example, and I'll admit right now that what you're about to see is completely out of context. I'll provide the context later, but first I have some points I want to make.

Which Kait suspected to be true; Aouel was a longtime friend of hers, since the day when she had wandered onto the airible field on the House grounds in Calimekka at the age of thirteen, and he had shown her the miracles of airible flight for the first time.

Sentence fragments. The previous sentence is a sentence fragment. Notice that my fragment, which serves as the topic sentence for this paragraph, has certain characteristics. First, it's comprehensible. Second, because of its placement and because of its comprehensibility you know, even though it's a fragment, that I'm going to talk about sentence fragments. I won't claim myself to be a master of sentence fragments, but I think I know a good fragment when I see one. I think I can also do a decent job of writing one. Third, taken out of context, my fragment remains comprehensible. Lisle's does not.

In the quoted text above, you see a 49-word sentence. It starts with a horrid fragment that is married to a hideously awkward sentence in which a comma has been grossly misused ("a longtime friend of hers, since the day" — also, I make no apologies for the adverbs I just used.) Divorce and comma divestiture are the clear solutions. For years now, whenever I come across beasts like this, I've had the habit of taming them with a rewrite, even if only in my mind. Lisle's preceding paragraph was just as bad, but it does provide the context for that — shivers! — sentence fragment. First, here's the original, including the previous paragraph:

Aouel glanced quickly at Kait, and as quickly made the look take in the three of them. "I would have flown through Tonn's hell itself to get to you," he said.

Which Kait suspected to be true; Aouel was a longtime friend of hers, since the day when she had wandered onto the airible field on the House grounds in Calimekka at the age of thirteen, and he had shown her the miracles of airible flight for the first time.

Now, here's how I would've written those two paragraphs:

Aouel shot a quick glance at Kait, then at the three of them. "I would have flown through Tonn's hell itself to get to you," he said.

Kait believed him, as Aouel was a longtime friend of hers. When she was thirteen, she had wandered onto the House's airible field in Calimekka. He had shown her then the miracles of airible flight for the first time.

I see no point in the use, let alone the repetition, of the adverb "quickly" in that first sentence. I think my rewrite communicates the idea that Aouel's glance at Kait and at "the three of them" was quick, and I didn't resort to a single adverb. If Kait and Aouel are longtime friends, I would hope that she would believe what he has just said, and not just "suspect" that what he has said is true. The use of "suspect" makes their longtime friendship suspect. (The "airible," by the way, is nothing more than a dirigible.)

"That" is a defining or restrictive pronoun. "Which" is non-defining, or non-restrictive.

The pistol that isn't firing is in the chest. (The clear implication is that there are other pistols, all of which are firing. This sentence tells us which one is not.)

The pistol, which isn't firing, is in the chest. (Adds a fact about the only pistol in question.)

The use of "that/which" presents problems for many, but if you look at these examples you can plainly see the difference. Clauses introduced by "which" are parenthetical and are therefore preceded by a comma (if they appear at the end of a sentence) or are set off by commas (if they appear in the middle of a sentence). "Which" is often used when "that" should be used, and Strunk and White's advice on the matter is both humorous and memorable: "The careful writer, watchful for small conveniences, goes which-hunting, removes the defining whiches, and by so doing improves his work."

Furthermore, no sentence — especially a sentence fragment! — should begin with "which." Beginning a sentence with a conjunction (and, but, and the like) is frowned upon, but forgivable. But starting a sentence with "which"? Egads! Spare me, please. Unfortunately, Lisle did not. Instead, I had to read several sentences that began in the very same fashion as the one quoted above.

There was also this humorous and embarrassing faux pas:

A choir of male singers accompanied the last litters, those of the ambassadors, the Galweigh paraglese, and finally the bride. They sang the standard selection of wedding songs, dedicating the marriage to Maraxis, the god of sperm, seed, and fertility, in whose month the wedding took place, and dedicating the bride to Drastu, the goddess of womb, eggs, and fertility.

"Sperm" and "seed" are synonymous, thus redundant. The parallel to "womb, eggs, and fertility" would be either "phallus, seed, and fertility" or "penis, seed, and fertility." Given that these are obviously religious references, "phallus" would be more appropriate as "penis" is too clinical.

And then Lisle regaled me with this one, which is Grisham-esque in its humor and tenor:

She stood chatting with them while they ate, as she did every morning, watching them devour the corn flatbread and pudding and fried plantains, and especially the stolen sweet rolls, with bright, intent eyes.

Them's some hungry eyes, let me tell ya. In fact, I find it amazing that these men could actually masticate their food with her eyeballs. This is just one of the many problems that can occur when you write long, convoluted sentences (34 words). If I simplify this sentence, the problem becomes more apparent:

She stood chatting with them while they ate, as she did every morning, watching them devour the corn flatbread (...) with bright, intent eyes.

What Lisle meant was:

She chatted with them while they ate, as she did every morning, watching them with bright, intent eyes as they devoured the corn flatbread and pudding and fried plantains, and especially the stolen sweet rolls.

Now her eyes are watching, instead of devouring all that food for these men, and the emphasis on the stolen sweet rolls is exactly where it should be. Shortening "stood chatting" to "chatted" adds further strength to the sentence, although I still think it's too long for its own good (35 words). Rewriting it again:

She chatted with them while they ate, as she did every morning. She watched them with bright, intent eyes as they devoured the corn flatbread and pudding and fried plantains, and especially the stolen sweet rolls.

The passage, now comprised of one 12-word sentence and one 24-word sentence, is just one word longer (36 words), but infinitely clearer. One potential problem here, though, is similar construction: She chatted.../She watched.... It's not a huge problem, but as I believe Lisle meant to put emphasis on this woman's eyes, this is even better:

She chatted with them while they ate, as she did every morning. With bright, intent eyes, she watched them as they devoured the corn flatbread and pudding and fried plantains, and especially the stolen sweet rolls.

It is a long-accepted rule-of-thumb that those things that you wish to emphasize should be placed either at the beginning or at the end of a sentence. When your "style" is such that it results in convoluted sentences, the result will almost certainly be Grisham-esque-like errors.

Below is another example — from the same paragraph — this one not so humorous or Grisham-esque. Rather, it illustrates the problem of sloppy writing:

When they'd finished, she told them if she didn't get back to the kitchen, Cook would have her hide. She said the same thing every morning, and as they did every morning, the men laughed and patted her round rump, and told her they would marry her if she wanted and tried to tempt her into staying longer, into going to bed with one or all of them, and into various other indiscretions.

That last sentence is 54 words long; the two sentences together 73 words long. Rewritten:

When they'd finished, she told them that if she didn't get back to the kitchen, Cook would have her hide. Every morning, without fail, she would say the same thing and the men would laugh, then pat her round rump and tell her that they'd marry her if she were willing. They would tempt her to stay longer, to go to bed with one or all of them, and to commit other indiscretions with them.

Not every "that" should be edited out of a sentence ("she told them that") for the same reason that in Latinate languages "que" cannot be eliminated. The repetition of "every morning" is redundant, as is "various other" (the plural "indiscretions" implies that they are varied). "They would try to tempt her" is verbose. Their daily attempts to tempt her communicates their effort well enough; there is no reason to add "try to" into the mix. Removing "try to" does not eliminate the implication that she always resisted their temptations. In fact, that this happened every morning not only carries with it the implication that she always resisted them, but that their temptations were a ritual which no one expected to be followed through to completion. Lisle's use of "into" is imprecise; what is needed here are infinitives — to stay, to go, to commit. "To commit" is not only stronger, but it carries with it the necessary sinful connotations desired when coupled with "indiscretions." Notice that even in my description of what Lisle was obviously after I've used words that increased my description's strength — "sinful" and "desired" and "coupled." "Coupled" is better than "married" because "coupled" can imply immorality whereas "married" cannot. Sensitivity in the use of language is paramount. The edited version is the same length — 74 words — but the clarity has been greatly enhanced, the redundancies eliminated, and the daily routine duly emphasized.

The original paragraph:

She stood chatting with them while they ate, as she did every morning, watching them devour the corn flatbread and pudding and fried plantains, and especially the stolen sweet rolls, with bright, intent eyes. When they'd finished, she told them if she didn't get back to the kitchen, Cook would have her hide. She said the same thing every morning, and as they did every morning, the men laughed and patted her round rump, and told her they would marry her if she wanted and tried to tempt her into staying longer, into going to bed with one or all of them, and into various other indiscretions.

The paragraph as I have edited it:

She chatted with them while they ate, as she did every morning. With bright, intent eyes, she watched them as they devoured the corn flatbread and pudding and fried plantains, and especially the stolen sweet rolls. When they'd finished, she told them that if she didn't get back to the kitchen, Cook would have her hide. Every morning, without fail, she would say the same thing and the men would laugh, then pat her round rump and tell her that they'd marry her if she were willing. They would tempt her to stay longer, to go to bed with one or all of them, and to commit other indiscretions with them.

My last example of another long and convoluted sentence:

Dùghall repressed a sigh and, with his tiny spare dagger, which had escaped the guards' careful search — for what guard would think of checking in the tuck beneath the roll of fat on a middle-aged diplomat's belly for a knife no bigger than a thumb? — he reopened the shallow cut in his palm and dripped his blood onto the floor, and summoned for the one who lay awake and the few who drifted or fought nightmares a peaceful, restful sleep.

Just look at the sheer, hulking mass of that thing. It's all of 81 words long! This kills a book's readability. Absolutely annihilates it. What first drew my attention to it was the last clause: "summoned for the one who lay awake and the few who drifted or fought nightmares a peaceful, restful sleep." Lisle has the annoying habit of constantly separating words that should not be separated. What do I mean by this? Well, let me remove the separation: "summoned (...) a peaceful, restful sleep." Breaking up phrases in this fashion not only harms readability, it also continuously interrupts the "vivid, continuous dream" that the reader wants to experience when she reads a novel. This sort of style draws too much attention to itself, instead of drawing attention to the story. There is no excuse for a sentence 81 words long. What's the point? To show that you're capable of writing such a hulking morass? Time for a rewrite, but without explanations for the changes. They'll explain themselves:

Dùghall repressed a sigh. From beneath the roll of fat on his belly he pulled out a knife no bigger than his thumb. None of the Sabir guards had thought to check him there for weapons. He reopened the shallow cut in his palm and dripped his blood onto the floor. For the one who lay awake and the few who drifted or fought nightmares, he summoned a peaceful, restful sleep.

It's now 71 words and five sentences, giving an average of 14.2 words per sentence. That increases the readability at least five-fold, if not more, and it contains all the information conveyed in the original without being convoluted. If you look closely, you'll see what I've done. I've limited each sentence to a single thought, although the penultimate sentence contains two. No sentence should contain more than two thoughts.¹ Good, concise, clear writing is that simple.

¹ Some basic grammar: Two independent clauses — that is, two sentences — joined by a conjunction are a compound sentence. The same is true when the conjunction is removed and replaced with a semi-colon. Compound sentences should contain no more than two complete thoughts. This is no longer the 19th-century, when monstrous sentences were the norm. That said, the monstrous sentences found classic novels from that period — or even earlier — are still easy to comprehend. In fact, they are incredibly well-written and demonstrate the author's facility with language. That's why they should be read and studied. Even if you are writing a novel placed in the 19th-century, that particular writing style should remain in the 19th-century. What a writer should strive to emulate in that instance is the style of speaking from that period, while still following today's rules for creating good dialogue.

I'll admit that I've never read anywhere — that I can recall, that is — a rule that says "
compound sentences should contain no more than two complete thoughts." It should be obvious, however, that the more complex the sentence, the more difficult it will be to comprehend. Have some compassion for your readers!

Finally, lest you think I don't know what I'm talking about, examine this post with a careful eye. You'll find that every one of my sentences contain no more than two complete thoughts.

2 comment(s):

monstro said...
December 12, 2009 3:08 PM

This sure is a looong post! :P But it was interesting to read, and surely anyone interested in good writing will find several useful examples here. :)

g d townshende said...
December 12, 2009 3:22 PM

Thank you. Yeah, I know it was long, and I had originally meant for it to be shorter. I decided in the end to just let it grow to its "natural" length. Some things require time to demonstrate and explain.

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