This weekend I flipped between Klinkenborg and Annie Proulx, whom I return to repeatedly because her prose makes me drool. The single act of reading 4 paragraphs from "Brokeback Mountain" can fuel me for days.
The pair have inspired me to take a cross-examiner's position with my sentences. Scrutinize each word like a potential juror. What is your role? Are you deletable? As Dr. K puts it, "Every word is optional until it proves to be essential." This is the kind of hard-core look at your prose that you can only take if you're willing to sacrifice any or all of the words you've just lovingly placed on the page. Fortunately I don't get attached.
Klinkenborg, who's taught writing at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia, and Harvard, also promotes the art of implication.
Know what each sentence says
What it doesn't say.
And what it implies.
He suggests writing short sentences with enough space between them "for the things words can't really say."
He adores short sentences. ("They may sound strange for a while until you can hear what they're capable of.") And sentences so strong they don't rely on surrounding sentences to give them meaning. This is true: when you've written a sentence strong enough to stand on its own two feet, you've written a good sentence.
While I've written my share of Henry Jamesian sentences, I'm becoming a convert to the art of diminution. (Which does not equal attenuation.) When I write shorter sentences, my verbs must do more heavy lifting. And so they need to be real verbs, strong verbs, even athletic verbs. This means a vast reduction in any form of the verb "to be," which creates passivity. It also means fun trips to the thesaurus, to explore the thousands of verbs writers generally use too infrequently. And to have hushed, late-night conversations with Monsieur Roget about what exactly I'm trying to say.
"To make short sentences," Klinkenborg suggests, "you need to remove every unnecessary word." This fun exercise tends to make rambling, 35-page stories, such as the one on my desktop, considerably shorter. It's also the very fine-toothed comb that allows you to sit in front of your manuscript from 4 to 11 pm and not realize that it's gotten dark, the moon has risen, and you haven't eaten dinner.
I'm only 30 pages into this 204-page book. But every time I go back and review those pages, I see something fascinating in this densely packed volume, written in something like blank verse.
A few more quotes:
The purpose of a sentence is to say what it has to say,
but also to be itself,
Not merely a substrate for the extraction of meaning.
The longer the sentence, the less it's able to imply,
And writing by implication should be one of your goals.
A single crowded sentence means giving up all the
Among shorter sentences--the friction, the tension,
The static electricity that builds up between them.
A single crowded sentence has only itself to relate to,
Only an enervated communion among its parts.
Oh how I love the thought of those enervated sentences communing, like tired refugees at Ellis Island.
Nine out of ten people polled hated diagramming sentences in grade school. So to make a topic like sentence construction this palatable, you must be mad-skilled. I'm happy to have found a guide who encourages me to think freshly about something I've been doing for 40 years.