by Pat Gulley
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the worst first line was announced recently on:
www.bulwer-lytton.com and very funny the winner and runners-up are. Seems they are all massive sentences, punctuated oddly with multiple ideas on one subjects scrabbled together.
Side note: If you go to the site to read them, before doing so scroll down the home page to 2007 Bad Sex In Fiction Award for the laugh/scare of your life. Never mind that this stuff actually got published, it sort of makes your eyes cross in wonder how the world population got so high if this is considered reasonably good sex.
But I digress, which I’m sure you expect from me by now, so back to the subject I’d like to talk about: Very Long Sentences.
This is frequently a topic of discussion on many lists and is the subject of many panels at cons. The general view is that they are bad, almost evil, here in the US, and the above contest seems to be consistently won by those putting them forward at their worst. I don’t think the Brits agree with us. They feel good punctuation can overcome anything. I agree, and I like looking for and discovering the well written mile-long sentence.
So, surprise, surprise, when I was given a book I was sure I did not want to read, but being desperate one afternoon, I picked up Joy Fielding’s STILL LIFE and had a very pleasant surprise in the first line. It just blew me away. It told you so much in one sentence and set the scene for the whole first chapter that I read the chapter without stopping to question anything. Then I went back and reread that first sentence about 5 times studying and dissecting, and trying hard to learn something. Oh, and there were three sentences in that first paragraph.
Yes, I admit to loving those sentences. And I know several people who do too. We consider ourselves secret addicts, and we're probably like many British writers because they have no qualms about writing those paragraph length sentences. However, an American author who does a great job with them is Caleb Carr. His two Alienist books have a multitude of those let-me-tell-you-a-story-between-two-periods type sentences, much to my delight. A Canadian, who is so-so—but I’d read his St-Cyr and Kohler books no matter how many times I have to go back and figure his lengthies out—is J. Robert Janes.
So the question is: Why are they so disliked, and by whom? A writing teacher I once asked professed to liking them, but never advocating them because few students got them right—probably making her job harder—and she felt simple sentences allowed Them to express themselves more easily. I suppose fast readers and skimmers might dislike them if they have to stop and read more carefully. And since editors and agents have to read so quickly, maybe that’s why they prefer simple sentences.
So what do you think of long, long sentences? And why do you think those who dislike them, really hate them? And do you write long sentences, then go back and chop them up?
Oh, about STILL LIFE. It’s considered a mystery, but I have to say not the kind I’m interested in. After the first few chapters, I admit to skimming—looking for more of those sentences too—but the story just didn’t engage me. It’s about a woman in a coma, who could hear everything going on around her and came to realize her 'accident' wasn't. I would say that if you are in a bookstore, though, it is well worth picking the book up to read that first sentence, and then judge for yourself if the whole book is for you. The book is well written and smooth flowing.