I’ve mentioned before, friends, that I’m mildly addicted to the lectures from The Great Courses, and since I’ve listened through all the ones I have already, and can’t afford to buy any more at the moment, I’ve been relistening to courses I took a couple years back. Hence my current immersion in a course entitled “Building Great Sentences”, lately. It’s good times. (Shut up. I think it is, at any rate.)
One of Professor Landon’s main theses in the course is that long sentences aren’t necessarily bad. I never thought they were, by the by, but during my ride on the whole write-submit-get-rejected merry-go-round, I’ve come to realize that some people appear to dislike lengthy, complicated sentences. I can’t quite figure out why, but that really doesn’t matter. Point is, if you open a story with a coordinate cumulative sentence**, people might take issue with it.
My main reason for bringing this up is that I wrote a fun piece of flash fiction some time back that most of my critiquers gigged for having too long an opening sentence. I rush to point out that I don’t fault the lovely folk who read the piece for mentioning this fact—we’ve been conditioned, in this post-Hemingway, journalistic era, to elevate the concise and punchy over the rambling and elliptical—but I do want to note that sentence length is a stylistic choice, and judgments thereof are necessarily subjective.
Examples are good. I should toss a few in. Here goes one.
The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish—this the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood.
Those were the first and second sentences of William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”. If you don’t know it, it’s famous. Look it up.
On my right hand there were lines of fishing stakes resembling a mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences, incomprehensible in its division of the domain of tropical fishes, and crazy of aspect as if abandoned forever by some nomad tribe of fishermen now gone to the other end of the ocean; for there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach.
That was the first sentence of Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer”. Good stuff.
One more, you say? Oh, okay.
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years, it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting upon the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss.
Virginia Woolf. Third and fourth sentences in “To The Lighthouse.” Yep.
So now the sentence that opened my flash fiction piece doesn’t look quite so bad, now, does it?
The light of the near-full moon shafted through the gaps in the deerskin drapes to paint stark bars on the worn flagstone floor of the great hall as Ur’chalin, shaman and soothsayer to the Kraelar and advisor to King Theorn the Thrice-Slain, hunched over his carved oak staff and fixed a baleful stare on the small knot of apprentices before him.
Oh, whatever. I know fine well it’s not great literature. It was never intended t be. The story it opens was really an extended joke setup anyway. But my original point that long opening sentences aren’t necessarily bad still stands.
“But Simon,” you say, “isn’t written fiction supposed to entertain? If your prose distracts people from the entertainment, haven’t you failed in some way?”
This is the bit where I beat you with a zucchini. *beats you with a zucchini*
Now, I’m not putting myself on a level with any of the aforementioned authors, but really, when I make a stylistic choice, and the sentence produced is grammatically correct, and does exactly what I intend it to do, should I be forced to change it for the sake of saleability? I think not, friends.
This is not a diatribe against the establishment (editors at fiction journals and zines love good stories just as much as we writers do, and genuinely want to find work that fires their imagination). Nor is it an imprecatory epistle to the folk who’ve rejected me (I affirm their right to have, y’know, their own taste). What this is, is an affirmation of my right to write my stories as I choose, and if they don’t sell, then they don’t sell. Should I rewrite my opening sentence because people thought it was too long? Ehh…not necessarily.
Folk are allowed their preferences. The fact that eight out of ten people would prefer a shorter opening sentence in one of my stories doesn’t mean I need to change it. The story is what it is. Am I trying to tell a story, or am I trying to please people?
I’d say I’m trying to tell a story, as best I know how. I’ll take plot critiques, character notes, sure. But unless I made a grammatical or logical error (to which I confess I may be prone, at times), I don’t feel I need to let people critique my prose. I make choices, and I’ll stand by them.
Or maybe I’m just subliminally sour about people’s critiques of my story. it could be that, too.
Meh…screw it. Where’s my vodka?
*I should probably have explained what a cumulative sentence is. Meh…suck it, haters.
**A sentence with a base clause and one or more free second-level modifying clauses. Yeah, it wouldn’t have made sense to me either until I took this course. Check it, if you’re curious.