Cutting to the Bore

by Kristin Marra

I have a masochistic love for Victorian novels. Those wordy, heavy weight tomes where the authors commit all the literary sins that modern writers dare not commit. Those old timey novelists had the chutzpah to preach to the reader. Victorian novelists also reveled in compound complex sentences
that threw more information at the reader than today’s entire paragraphs are
allowed to supply. One has to slow down to read Victorian sentences, chew on
each clause, parse out the double entendres, and then put it all back together
to get one complete thought. Punctuation binges from those verbose writers
would never be allowed by today’s style exacting editors; worse, Victorian
writers generously indulged in (gasp) parentheses.  Check out this example from David Copperfield by my beloved Charles Dickens:

I even walk, on two or
three occasions, in a sickly, spoony manner, round and round the house after
the family are gone to bed, wondering which is the eldest Miss Larkin’s chamber
(and pitching, I dare say now, on Mr. Larkins’s instead); wishing that a fire
would burst out; that the assembled crowd would stand appalled; that I, dashing
through them with a ladder, might rear it against her window, save her in my
arms, go back for something she had left behind, and perish in the flames.


One sentence. And it isn’t even the entire paragraph. All
that information crammed into all those clauses which the intrepid reader has
to distill down to the simple idea that the narrator’s crush on Miss Larkin causes
insomnia and instills fantasies of him proving his love through martyrdom. Wow.

Those kinds of sentences were the norm for 19th
Century writers. How did they get away with it? Were they just plain smarter
than we of the 21st Century? And how, oh how, did they do it in long
hand? It’s that long hand question that explains it all. They couldn’t edit.
They didn’t have computers or even typewriters. They couldn’t “cut out the
boring parts.” Cutting out the boring parts is the mantra of the contemporary novelist.
God forbid a writer should have one sentence, even one clause that might make
the reader restless. But who’s to say what’s boring and what’s riveting?

I especially struggled with this concept when writing 78 Keys. Initially, it was written from
two points of view (one was first person, the other was third person), from the
two romantic leads. My partner complained. My editor complained. One of my beta
readers complained. However three other beta readers liked the two perspectives
of one story. I did too. I felt it made for a multi-layered plot. I also knew I
didn’t yet have the writing chops to carry it off successfully. I was boring or
confusing half the initial readers. That was a large enough percentage to
convince me to do what my excellent editor wanted: I eliminated one point of
view and wrote the whole story in first person. It’s now the story of Devorah
Rosten, a neurotic, hypochondriac tarot reader who is charged with saving the
world. And, of course, in the process, she falls in love.

Having honed my reading skills on Victorian novelists, my
writing style in 78 Keys struggled
with sentence length. I can get clausy and wordy. I often wanted to insert
parentheses to give an aside comment, but I avoided it altogether. Most of all,
I had to fight with the urge to preach to my readers. 78 Keys makes some fairly large statements about politics, religion
and the nature of existence. Frankly, it was cheeky of me to write it
considering the human questions the book grapples with. But I couldn’t resist.
I have the soul and nature of an opinionated Victorian writer. I’m old enough
and settled enough with who I am to understand that most people aren’t into the
lessons on human nature offered in such magnificent tomes as Middlemarch. A normal person doesn’t
have the time or inclination to dig for the truth in long pedantic sentences
filled with asides. Why should they when contemporary writers offer the same
insights in shorter, direct sentences with all the boring parts cut away?

My guess is, though, is that today’s novelists would be
writing those pernicious compound complex sentences if long hand were our only
method of writing. It’s easy to eliminate the boring bits when the ability to
cut is instantaneous and at our fingertips. If I had written 78 Keys in long hand, you, dear reader,
would be reading it from two points of view, one first person and the other
third person. And you’d be longing for a day when someone invents a way for
writers to highlight then press delete.

3 Responses to “Cutting to the Bore”

  1. 1 Mel June 9, 2011 at 9:55 AM

    Oh, I LOVE this post. I was reading your words, perched on the edge of my chair. Yes yes and yes. You’re so right. Sometimes I think I’ve deleted more words than I’ve actually written in my novels. We want clean. We want to the point. We want uncluttered.
    Yet, before a sentence can be cleansed of all clutter, it needs to be a mess. And the mess is what lies beneath the clean words. It is always there, even in Hemingway’s prose or Faulkner’s, or our latest contemporaries. The trick today–in my humble opinion–is for a writer to make you feel the mess without walking you through it.
    Thanks for this post! And I will definitely read your book. It sounds like a great read to me.


  2. 2 Karen June 9, 2011 at 11:13 AM

    What an entertaining post. You may hve had to re-write your book a couple of times, but this post flowed beautifully, and I learned something, to boot! The sentence you quoted, that was trying to be a paragraph, was enlightening.
    Yes, what other qualities about writing have changed, and will continue to change because of technology? It will be exciting to watch. U think? 😉


  3. 3 bookgeek June 9, 2011 at 4:33 PM

    … you should write in German. Paragraph long sentences with the clarifying verb hidden right at the end are compulsory and you can have at being philosophical anytime.
    Or may be you should write a Victorian novel set at that time and indulging in all of its vices .


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