Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fragments

John here. This week I’m revising a novel and find myself experimenting with fragments. Playing with the syntax. Changing some complete sentences to short bursts. An attempt to quicken the pace is some spots and strengthen the narrative voice.

I’m usually a complete-sentence guy, perhaps because I harp on them eight hours a day while teaching high school English. In its most basic form, the sentence consists of three parts: subject, verb, and complete idea. A fragment is a clause in which one of those parts is missing.

An example of what I’m doing is this revised prologue.

Original version:
The CD was Everclear’s So Much for the Afterglow, the song “Amphetamine.” In the lab, kids said no one listened to Everclear anymore. That didn’t bother him. The words and melody were merely background noise, clearing way for his relentless focus.

High above Aroostook County, Maine, his flight-deck headphones were askew—one ear covered by the black foam piece allowing communication with Air Traffic Control; a tiny white iPod earpiece in the other ear, its white cord running to his hip pocket.

He’d rented the Cessna 310 for the day. He’d have it for all of an hour, two, if things went badly.

Things wouldn’t go badly.

He left nothing to chance. Didn’t believe in risks, and failure was simply deviation from his norm. The choices he’d made throughout this journey had been specific ones to assure success—this region, this farm.


Revision:
The CD was Everclear’s So Much for the Afterglow, the song “Amphetamine.” In the lab, kids told him no one listened to Everclear anymore. Didn’t bother him. The words and melody were merely white noise, clearing way for his relentless focus.

High above Aroostook County, Maine, his flight-deck headphones were askew. One ear covered by the black foam piece allowing communication with Air Traffic Control. A tiny white earbud in the other ear, its white cord running to his hip pocket.

He’d rented the Cessna 310 for the day. He’d have it for all of an hour, two, if things went badly.

But things wouldn’t go badly.

He’d left nothing to chance. Didn’t believe in risks. And failure was simply deviation from his norm. He’d made specific choices during his long journey, choices that assured success: this region, this farm.


I reworded the passage in places, added paragraph breaks, and (hopefully) improved the pace and therefore the tension. We’ll see how the rewrite turns out.

I’m leery of shortening the syntax because you can easily go overboard. I started James Elroy’s THE COLD SIX THOUSAND and felt like I was going 200 miles per hour for the first 50 pages and never finished the book. Here’s a sample:
“Nobody said it:
Kill that koon. Do it good. Take our hit fee.
The flight ran smooth. A stew served drinks. She saw his gun. She played up. She asked dumb questions.
He worked Vegas PD. He ran the intel squad. He built files and logged information.
She loved it. She swooned.”

Technically only one fragment, but the syntax is so clipped I never come up for air. I know some people love that—and I’m normally a huge Elroy fan—but this one was just too much.

You have to know the voice of the work when considering the syntax. Try this opening paragraph from CUBA LIBRE by Elmore Leonard:
“Tyler arrived with the horses February eighteenth, three days after the battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. He saw buzzards floating in the sky the way they do but couldn’t make out what they were after. This was off Morro Castle, the cattle boat streaming black smoke as it came through the narrows.”

Leonard’s opening reads like syrup: one clause rolls naturally into the next, until the voice sings. I could get lost in this book for hours.

There’s no right or wrong. You just try to find the syntactical form that fits the voice and pace you’re looking for. I have 300 pages to go.

7 comments:

Vicki Delany said...

I always enjoy your little writing lessons John. Shows the importance of taking time to really go over your work and polish it.

Hannah Dennison said...

This is a great post. I tried reading James Elroy and just got frustrated. Dare I say his style to me, has always seemed a tad contrived -(I am embarrassed to even critique another writer who does not have a day job). You've definitely made me think about my own work.

Rick Blechta said...

John tends to do that, Hannah. The mark of a great teacher.

Donis Casey said...

I read Elmore Leonard just for style tips. And I don't mean which shoes to wear with that outfit.

Rick Blechta said...

He covers that, too.

Donis Casey said...

I saw him speak once. He was dressed in blue jeans and a tweed jacket. He did cut quite a dash.

Rick Blechta said...

I would have thought he would be more of a backslash or maybe an ellipsis.

;)