Taking a hatchet to my clunky sentences


 My editor’s exasperation shows in the exclamation marks. ‘Clunky sentence!! Try breaking it up,’ she pleads. Not for the first time. But when I look at the sentence, it’s not just the sentence––it’s a whole paragraph, a whole scene, maybe even the whole chapter.

            Yes, I do have an academic background. I’ve loved reading Dickens and Jane Austen and Milton. I studied Latin and know an absolute ablative from an accusative and infinitive.

            But something tells me that breaking my complex clauses into shorter sentences isn’t going to fix the problem. It’s not so much the sentence that’s at fault as the emotional rationale beneath it.

            If, so late in the process, my editor, Liz Monument finds most of my sentences acceptable, but is gnashing her teeth over a whole paragraph, then something is wrong deeper down. Trying to simplify this batch of clunky sentences is like trying to sandpaper a chunk of undressed timber.

            A year ago, my son and I learned to make long-bows. Lacking fine-motor skills, I chose a bow that was already half-formed by the teacher, and finished it with a draw-knife and sandpaper. My son, much more skilled, started with a length of pink-gum trunk. He split and trimmed it with his Swedish hatchet, straightened a twist with steam, clamps and weights, and only then got to the draw-knife and sandpaper.

            This chapter needs me to take an axe or a cross-cut saw to my whole concept.

            I try changing the order of chapters, but that doesn’t help. I try changing the time sequence. Still no better. Much hair-tearing later, I remove a well-known and sometimes crusty character from the scene. In his place, two new characters have room to introduce themselves and make me care about them. Darach, the boy who is strong as an oak but unable to speak, takes his sister by the hand and the sentences start to flow round them, like water released from a log-jam.

See: https://www.lizmonument.com

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