Saturday, January 29, 2011

Beautiful sentences

Included in this week's links for writers post over at Sterling Editing, is an article by Adam Haslett about beautiful sentences.

Sentences are something I've been thinking about a lot lately. I've always been a fan of clarity and simplicity: poetry masquerading as prose. Rhythm matters. Word choice matters. Metaphor matters. I love to vary the rhythm and shape of sentences in a paragraph--unless I'm going for a particular effect.

But with Hild, all my notions about sentences fell to pieces. I find myself writing those vinous, sinuous, snaky thing--sometimes in what I think of Anglisc (pro. Anglish) mode and sometimes Brythonic (or Brittonic, or British/Celtic), sometimes Irish (also Celtic, but different) and, very occasionally, Latinate. The sentences depend on the mood, on the setting, on the characters I'm focused on--all kinds of things.

Here's a paragraph from the first couple of pages when Hild and her family still live in Elmet, at the court of Ceredig, a Brittonic king of Elmet. She's nearly four:

Hild recalled no sights or sounds of the place they'd come from, the standard against which all was compared, the long-left home. She had vague memories of sun-on-grapes, others of a high place of lowing cattle and bitter wind, of ships and wagons and the crook of her father's arm as he rode, but she knew none of them were home, could be home. She recognised people who might be from that long-lost perhaps never-real home when they galloped in on foundering horses, or slipped through the enclosure fence during the dark of the moon. She knew them by their thick woven cloaks, their hanging hair and beards, and their Anglisc voices: words drumming like apples spilt over wooden boards, round, rich, stirring. Her father's words, and her mother's, and her sister's. Utterly unlike Onnen's otter-swift British, or the dark liquid gleam of Irish. Nor like the cool clicking tiles of bishops' Latin. Hild spoke each to each. Apples to apples, otter to otter, gleam to gleam, though she had only sung snatches of the strange Latin in songs under her breath. And only when her mother wasn't there: Never stoop to wealh speech, never trust wealh, especially those shaved priestly spies.

And, a handful of pages later, her father dead, at the court of her uncle, Edwin, an Anglisc king of Northumbria:

In some ways, Hild's new life was not so different. Her days, the court's days, were one of constant movement from royal vill to royal vill: Bebbanburgh at the end of the lean months for the safety of the rock walls and the cold grey sea, and Yeavering at the end of spring, when the cattle ate sweet new grass and the milk flowed rich with fat. Then south to the old emperor's wall, to the small towns built of stone, and a day at Tinamutha and a boat down the coast to that wide river mouth, wide as a sea, and up the river to Barton in early summer and then, sometimes, Sancton, and always to Goodmanham's slow river valley at summer's height--the rolling wolds crimson with flowers, the skeps heavy with honey, and the fields waving with grain. Then the twenty mile journey to York, with its strong walls and snug stonework, its river roads for carrying the last of the sweet apples and the first of the pears, and high towers in case of bitter war, winter war.

War there was, but in summer. Edwin took war on the road with his warband, ten score gesiths and their men, their horses and wagons, a few handsful of shared women. They were always back before autumn, weighed down, depending on the war, with Anglisc arm rings and great gaudy brooches, British daggers with chased silver hilts--though the blades were no match for Anglisc or Frankis work--or strange heavy coin, and they would wind themselves about with boasts and intricate inlaid sword belts. And always by the end of summer there was a double handful more of big-voiced, hard-chested men glittering with gold. Not all were Anglisc, but they drank and shouted and boasted the same way.

These are epical let's-move-time-along sentences, quite unlike the kind of thing I'm used to writing in novels. Certainly there wasn't much like this in the Aud books. Aud thought in arrow-straight sentences. Hild is much more elliptical and, of course, much younger. One of the surprises for me writing this novel has been the number of asides--often in dashes--I feel compelled to include: something I've never done before in fiction.

As the novel progresses, I do a lot more focus-changing: zooming in on a personal moment, widening out a little to follow interactions closely for a scene or two, then pulling right out and up again to 70,000', to describe the ebb and flow of kingdoms and religions. Generally speaking, the older Hild gets, the more the narrative slows down and sticks with her moment to moment. But the constant zoom and pull is a bit dizzying. I don't always get the focus sharp, or hold it for the appropriate time. But, hey, that's what rewrites are for.

Speaking of which, enjoy the above paragraphs. Who know what will actually make it into the finished product.

But back to the notion of beautiful sentences. What are some of your favourites?


ETA: I forgot to note that the exerpts above are first draft. That is, they were--I just read them, and moved a comma, so now I suppose it's second draft :)

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