Let’s Hurt Sentences!

I’m doing page proofs on THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT, my September debut. It’s a novel about sex, money, imperial power, colonial resistance, accounting, logistics, psychology, and the price of civilization. It’s a story about a young woman fighting to save her home and change the world. It’s made out of sentences.

I like quite a bit of it. Like any writer, I hate some of it. We can talk about the good stuff when the book comes out! Let’s talk about the sentences I’ve discovered I hate, the specific kind of sentence I loathe the most. Let’s figure out why they’re broken.

I love good sentences, and I love prose-level style. I’m fascinated by prose with voice and character, prose with a tactile sense of place, prose that drips or vibrates or chokes. I love picking apart compulsive prose, the kind of writing that just grabs you and runs you forward, and if it’s really good, absolutely exemplary, it feels like the writer anticipated the way your eye skips around the page, feels like she set certain words as traps to draw your gaze. You step on them, you panic or marvel, and you read back to see what you missed.

If we want to write prose that good, of course, we’ve got to look at sentences that don’t work.

Doing page proofs, I’ve been hitting a class of sentences that bother me a lot. They’re not clunkingly awful, but they leap out at me as missed opportunities. They’re uninhabited sentences: small, functional pieces of narration that don’t seem slanted by a certain character’s perspective. Every sentence should have a mission, and in the prose style I’m using here, every sentence should be a double agent, achieving a surface goal — say, moving a character through a door — and a deeper goal, hinting at emotion, motivation, past, future. Every sentence should have a voice, an owner. Ideally, the reader should know, at least subconsciously, who that owner is.

But these sentences I keep meeting are the faceless stormtroopers of prose style. They just sit there connecting interesting things. That’s a waste! Every word should be interesting! Every stormtrooper should get a chance to bang her head on a door or curse creatively.

Let’s grab one. Baru Cormorant watches a woman come into her office.

“Aminata slipped past Muire Lo, who closed the great door with a firm click, and presented herself at attention with a frame of palimpsest tucked under her arm.”

What do I hate about this sentence? A lot. I don’t know much formal grammar, but I do know that this sentence feels mealy, saggy, and round. It tastes like an overripe orange.

The sentence doesn’t use its energy well. Aminata slips past Muire Lo. That’s good: a simple action. The reader is propelled forward. But then we hit the second module, ‘who closed the great door with a firm click.’  This is ugly: great door…firm click is an unpleasant pair, dangling baggage, unspecific objective detail. Does anyone look at a door and say ah, yes, that is a great door? Does anyone listen to a click and say ah, yes, it was firm? What do these details tell us about anyone? They’re a little sensory, which is nice, but we have no reason to care about that sensory info. It exists in a vacuum. Why does a great door belong next to a firm click? Why do these details need to be attached to Muire Lo’s actions? Why did we waste the momentum our last construction gave us, that simple verb action, on this?

The sentence spends energy to aim the reader at Muire Lo, then, confusingly, swaps right back to Aminata as she ‘presented herself at attention.’ It’s confusing and roundabout. Worse, she has ‘a frame of palimpsest tucked under her arm’. Why did we spend so many words saying that? ‘Palimpsest’ is a big round word. It sits there eating up space and attention. It’s good to know what Aminata’s carrying, since it’s important, but we could find a more interesting way to do it.

Right now our sentence goes like this: [action] [baggage] [action] [baggage]. That’s a boring rhythm. The narrative spotlight leaps around erratically, pushing characters and objects into place with awkward haste. Worse, nothing in this sentence belong to Baru (our observer), Aminata, or Muire Lo. We could swap in nearly any character imaginable and use the same words. The sentence doesn’t tell us that Baru is wary of Aminata, or that Aminata wants Baru’s approval, or that Muire Lo is desperate to overhear the conversation. That’s a failure. (It does, at least, tell us that Aminata is military.)

How could we fix it? We could just radically simplify it. Aminata snapped to attention. We lose Muire Lo, the palimpsest, and a bit of spatial information. But maybe none of that’s important. Aminata can hit her next dialog beat and we can move on with the scene. This is a simple sentence that builds energy, because the reader doesn’t need to spend time figuring it out.

Let’s look at the opening module. ‘Aminata slipped past Muire Lo.’ There’s a relationship here, spatially and emotionally. Muire Lo is in the way, and Aminata goes past him. They’re briefly close to each other, which gives an opportunity to see how they react, although it’s not one our POV, Baru, might exploit. I’d like to use this close passage to key up the power dynamic between Aminata, a naval officer, and Muire Lo, a secretary.

The second module’s dire. Let’s take it out. We need to keep the focus on Aminata’s actions here. Nobody cares about the door.

The third module’s key, since it’s the last action Aminata takes and the center of the whole beat. I want the reader to understand that Aminata works for Baru, but that Baru’s intimidated and impressed by her competence.

The final module is a piece of technical blocking, letting us know that Aminata’s carrying a palimpsest. Maybe we can find a cleaner, less expensive way to tell the reader the same information: Aminata has news, records, or some other kind of information coupon.

How could we play it? Exploring:

Aminata left her papers with Muire Lo and stepped up to salute. 

Aminata left Muire Lo to fumble with her papers. Her straight-backed salute made Baru want to apologize for the state of everything, the accounts, the office, the way they’d left matters on Taranoke.

Aminata snapped to attention. Baru liked the salute so much she almost replied in kind. Muire Lo, still fumbling with Aminata’s papers, scurried out of the way.

Aminata smiled slantwise at Muire Lo, who blushed, and slipped past him to salute and set herself at attention. Baru cleared her throat and wished she could look so damn upright. 

Aminata came down the length of the office, past Muire Lo and the plotting table and the wine, to snap a perfect salute. Baru remembered her coming down the back hall at school, coming across the dueling floor, and swallowed.

This last one rankles at me because it repeats the same structure: Beat, beat, beat. Beat, beat, beat. But I hope it’s clear that we’ve got a lot of options to clean up this sentence and put in more information about the characters! We can paint Muire Lo as a small figure trapped between Aminata and Baru, or a fumbling, overwhelmed secretary. We can highlight Aminata’s competence, her energy, or her menace. We can remind the reader that Baru tends to see the power in physical motion more than anything else, or that she likes having authority, or that she’s under a lot of pressure.

We’ve also tooled up our subtext a little. Muire Lo’s a secretary, and here we’ve attached him to words that reinforce that. He’s handling papers, or trying to get out of the way. He’s not being given much power. Aminata’s a soldier, and as she arrives here to report, she claims power aggressively even as she performs an act of deference. This is appropriate, because soldiers are tied to violence, and Baru, a civilian, feels threatened and awed by Aminata’s military bearing. (I absolutely love it when structure reflects content. Is there a good word for this?) And even though Baru’s being saluted, even though she’s observing all this, we never see her claiming much power for herself. She doesn’t inspect Aminata’s uniform or cargo to gather information, she doesn’t guess whether Aminata seems tired or excited. She’s clearly on the back foot, under pressure, reacting rather than acting.

The trick, of course, is pulling this off without clouding the purpose of the sentence. Some sentences need to be functional. But I like to think that tying a sentence clearly to a certain character always helps make it sharper and easier to understand. People are specialists at thinking about people. It’s what we do. When we tap that power, we tell better stories.

Here are a few other sentences that I’ve wished I could fix.

“Duke Unuxekome and a lightly armed honor guard met them dockside.” Would Baru really look at a group of soldiers and think ‘lightly armed honor guard’? That sounds like a casting call. Nothing about it is specific to Baru’s experience of the world.

“The mines had been tethered to the harbor floor at the last low tide, their lift bladders and wooden casings straining for the surface.” Here we have slipped into some strange mine-perspective. Who tethered the mines? What does Baru think about their objectives?

“Divers (still all women—coastal Aurdwynn held to the Tu Maia tradition of diving as a woman’s work) went down into the harbor with ropes and stones. Some vanished into the wrecks for heartstopping minutes.” This is too remote. I wish it were closer to Baru’s senses, showing us her eyes on these women, her mind on this tradition. For a sentence about heartstopping tension, it’s too chill. And that parenthetical drifts in there like a big dumb bubble, soaking up kinetic energy.

“The Masquerade’s most powerful military discovery had come early in its history: battles didn’t kill soldiers. Plague and starvation killed soldiers, the slow, structural forces of conflict.” Is Baru fascinated by this, repulsed, pragmatically appreciative? I want the narration to hint at why Baru’s thinking about this information, and how she plans to use it.

I hope some of this is interesting or useful! I’m constantly compelled to push my own prose style and try to learn new effects. Lately I’ve been fascinated by stories that imply powerful emotional beats in very pragmatic, everyday actions. I hope that in a few years I’ll read back over this and laugh at how foolish I was — how many options I was blind to.

6 thoughts on “Let’s Hurt Sentences!

  1. Anjelus

    I like that you make clear you don’t know much about “formal grammar,” and then launch into a great bit of self-critique that would do any grammarian proud. It shows your intuitive understanding of the language. There’s a natural rhythm in English prose that the majority of writers can’t tune into and readers only recognize subconsciously. The fact that you do speaks volumes about how your work ethic.

    Looking forward to your debut!

  2. Pingback: Link Archive 2/4/15 – 3/31/15 » Death Is Bad

  3. Crane

    This was a really interesting read. I’ve noticed myself that occasionally a sentence I wrote will stand out as poor in some ineffable, vexatious way, but I’ve never tried to analyse why so systematically. I shall have to do so in the future!

    I recently read the two preview chapters for Baru Cormorant on Tor, and now I really can’t wait for it.

  4. other rick

    I don’t know about some of those–I think they work! In one scene Baru tallies the reasons behind the certain deaths of her comrades, and this tally is described in an aside as her savant talent. I thought of the “heartstopping minutes” of the divers the same way–Baru’s talent for imagining the martial realities of the operation is also showing her the small-scale, familial realities of the operation, which makes [spoiler event] all the more powerful.


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