Shaena Lambert is a novelist, short story writer and teacher. Her fiction has been nominated for The Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, The Ethel Wilson Prize and been published to critical acclaim in Canada, the UK, Germany and Australia. Her upcoming collection of short stories, Oh, My Darling, will be available in September 2013. Of Oh, My Darling, Lisa Moore, author of February, says “Shaena Lambert’s stories are jubilant, ironic, bone-marrow intimate and hyper-vivid… Oh, My Darling is fist-pump marvellous. Lambert will take your heart captive.”
Bad Sentences: A Guest Post by Shaena Lambert
There’s a story in Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like A Writer, about a writer who met with his agent and was asked what he was working on next. He said, “I want to write beautiful sentences.” The agent leaned forward, took his arm, and said, “Don’t ever tell anybody in publishing that.”
Sentences are our tools. They are also our passion – but that’s the part we’re supposed to keep quiet about. We are supposed to be focusing on the creation of plots, which lead to chapters, which lead to whole books. Yet writing beautiful/elegant/thoughtful/well-constructed sentences is what a lot of the craft boils down to. Just as, when we are in the throes of writing, it also boils down to choosing the right word, stringing them together into the right paragraph. In other words, being in the moment and attempting to do the task in front of us as well as we can.
I have a few things to say about good sentences, but for this post I’d like to offer up a few kinds of bad sentences. Most writers are familiar with them. I certainly know these guys well.
1. The self-admiring sentence. This is the sentence that makes a big entrance, air-kissing the host as she swans onto the page. Even as she speaks, she’s checking how she looks in the mirror. These are the sentences that Samuel Johnson said we should strike out.
2. The sentence with mustard stains on its shirt. This sentence just can’t be bothered, because he thinks dressing up is for sissies.He prides himself on authenticity. This kind of sentence shows up a lot in prose where the writer feels that being ‘real’ and ‘telling it like it is,’ is more important than being clear.
3. The sentence with no rhythm. It just sits there on the page. Or if it tries to dance, it is like the guy at the Christmas party who can only wriggle his arms. The only cure for writing sentences like this is to immerse oneself in reading.
4. The loner sentence. It exists by itself, has no relation to its neighbours –a fatal mistake, because all sentences are only as good as the interaction they have with the life around them.
5. And perhaps most familiar and most damaging: the surgically-enhanced sentence. This is when you take a perfectly good thought and tweeze it, dye it, exfoliate it, and botox it until it becomes a monster. After this kind of self-editing it bears no resemblance to the thing you were trying to say in the first place. Cut it out and start again. It can’t be saved.
There are other kinds of bad sentences, too. The rancorous adolescent who corners you and talks about how horrible his mother is. The deceitful sentence. The sentence that giggles and wants to be liked. Many of these problems crop up when we try to craft something meaningful, but get caught up in our own language. When it comes to sentences, we can take too little care, or we can take too much care. The best sentences seem to be an insouciant blend of chutzpah and effortlessness. We have to try to make them really good – but we can’t seem to be trying at all.
For more writing advice, follow Shaena on twitter @ShaenaLambert