Painters have paint, choreographers have bodies, sculptors have bronze, musicians have chords and tunes. Writers have sentences. Not words, sentences, because a word which isn't in relation to another word can only be something, not do anything. In a letter Flaubert once described himself as "Itching with sentences", that is, with chains of words connected up to make a meaning. Flaubert's itch wouldn't be cured until he got the sentences - the meanings - out, and heading towards readers.
I do love reading good sentences, and try to write them, and I know from the response to my sixty versions of exactly the same sentence that many who read this blog do the same. I've talked about the wonders of the long sentence, and thought about what happens to the storytelling in a sentence when you rearrange its elements. And now a couple of enjoyable and useful new books which are all about sentences, and the voices built into them, have landed on my doormat, so I thought I'd have a seasonal round-up.
As I never get bored with explaining to my students of academic writing, writing good sentences isn't about making your work prettier (we've all met writing which sounds lovely and means very little) though it will have that agreeable side-effect. Nor is building good sentences a post-production process: writing good sentences demands understanding what you're trying to say and how you're trying to say it, both of which are rooted in why you're trying to say it. Mind you, you can be very clear on what, how and why, and still not write as well as you might, if your vocabulary not only of words, but also of patterns, phrases, tropes and tricks, is limited. Just as taking a poetry course helps to develop your ear for connotations, sound, rhythms and images, taking the sort of sentence-writing courses implicit in these books could do the same for your storytelling.
How to Write a Sentence; and how to read one by Stanley Fish
"Language is not a handmaiden to perception; it is perception; it gives shape to what would otherwise be inert and dead", says Fish, who's an academic of both law and literature. He's beautifully clear about how handling sentences and writing good ones isn't about being able to label the parts of speech correctly, but about learning to build meaning by choosing words and then connecting them into chains which move thinking and feeling forwards. He then sets about exploring the different ways to build and connect up those sentences. Along the way he has some great suggestions for exercises to build your skills although, as befits a super-stylish essayist, he has no truck with natty little boxes or subheadings or bullet points: it's up to you to fish out his suggestions of ways to work. Indeed, everything is written in a delectably fluent prose which is as varied and as characteristic as your favourite river. His chapter on First Sentences should be read by anyone trying to catch a reader, let alone an agent, and he's the last person to try to prescribe what's "correct". As he says, "New ways of doing things with language's limited but protean repertoire of forms are always being invented". Mind you, if I'm honest, he had me at the title of Chapter Two: "Why you won't find the answer in Strunk and White". HarperCollins
Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau; translated by Barbara Wright; foreword by Umberto Eco; with an essay by Italo Calvino
Somewhere between yoga and circuit training for writers, also witty and, in a funny way, profound . "On a crowded bus at midday, the narrator observes one man accusing another of jostling him...". Queneau, a co-founder of Oulipo, takes his tiny, three sentence story, and re-writes and re-writes it. Some of the versions are about style: metaphors, litotes, book blurb. Some - Spoonerisms, Permutations by Increasing Groups of Words, Paragoge - create surprising resonances and frictions between words. Others are about structure - Retrograde, Three-act Play. Then there are the voices - Reactionary, Exclamations, Speaking Personally, Interjections. My hair stands on end at the thought of what Barbara Wright must have gone through to find such brilliant equivalents in English for each of Queneau's ninety-nine French originals, but even more important is what this book could do for you. Even just writing the five senses versions would be an excellent exercise. And how about trying the court examination, the passive voice version, gustatory, the ghost story ... Alma Books
The Elements of Eloquence: how to turn the perfect English phrase by Mark Forsyth
This is another delightful book, although the subtitle isn't quite accurate, because it's not so much a "how to?" book as a "what is it and how does it work?" book. Forsyth has collected classic, and frequently Classical, ways to take something you want to say, and make it memorable - or beautiful, startling, witty, sonorous, punchy... While you, like me, may be constitutionally unable to remember what Hendiadys is, for example, Forsyth is a dab hand at showing you how and why it works, from Jesus's "For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory", to a gorgeous line of Leonard Cohen's. There's wit here, too, as Forsyth makes his own sentences demonstrate in themselves the very thing they're explaining (dammit, I can't remember what the name for that trick is), leading you neatly towards understanding how it works, and then on to the next of his thirty-nine figures of rhetoric. As Stanley Fish points out a propos grammatical terms, learning all the names for these things won't make a blind bit of difference to how good a writer you are. On the other hand, you'll learn an awful lot - and have some fun - if you roll up your sleeves and actually try to write some of your own versions. Icon Books
Reading Like A Writer: a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them by Francine Prose
Sentences are only part of what this classic book is about, but I've put it in here because it's a rare how-to book which talks about them as this one does, as a specific set of skills and understanding, rather than discussing prose in general. Prose's chapter on Sentences comes after the one on Words, and before the one on Paragraphs, which is logical, and her discussion builds towards the larger scale stuff of storytelling: the chapter on Gesture is peerless and, again, explores a neglected topic. The other thing I love about Prose is how good she is at relating the practicalities of sentences to the heart of the story that they're delivering. Harper Perennial
Practical English Usage by Michael Swan
I've put this in because it's my new discovery, and it has good, clear stuff on how to build sentence structures, punctuation and syntax. It's not a grammar in the way you'd think of it, but a fat dictionary of the details of how English works, all explained astonishingly clearly and simply. Although it's intended for advanced EFL students and their teachers, it's stuffed with things which I know lots of native English speakers start worrying about as they learn to write: where "only" should go, the which/that puzzlement, passive and active verbs, may/might and so on. If you're starting a writing course and nervous that others "know more grammar" than you, this should help. OUP
To get hold of any of these, or any others in my full list of books for writers, just stroll or phone down to your local independent bookshop or, if that would involve an overnight stay as it would in many parts of the country, click through to the indies' collective website The Hive. You could, of course, nip down to the library and make an author very happy in February 2014 when they open their PLR statement. Or you could scribble one or more titles on a piece of paper and send it flying up the chimney to Father Christmas or the benign, gift-bearing, semi-historical mythical being of your choice.