I am such an evangelist for thinking BIG about books – for knowing your audience, for knowing the marketplace, for understanding how your structure serves your story-- and as a result, I spend a lot of time in this newsletter talking about these big picture ideas.
I also spend a lot of time on the realities of the writing life – the habits you need to do good work, the kind of support that helps and hurts, the ways you can shake off doubt and despair so you can get the words out of your head and onto the page.
And then, of course, there is the selling – how to connect with readers, how to hook agents, and all the rest of the noisy work of publishing.
What often gets overlooked is the power and beauty of a well-crafted sentence. It’s often the very last thing we care about – because if you don’t know your point, and you haven’t chosen an effective structure, and you don’t have the habits to sustain the writing of a book, what difference does it make how your sentences sound? Crafting a sentence is often the very last thing a writer – or a book coach -- pays attention to.
And yet when we read a book, when we fall under its spell, oftentimes, the thing that most stands out are the sentences.
I am in the midst of reading H is for Hawk, the award-winning memoir by Helen Macdonald, and I am completely dazzled – by the story, by the structure, by the content (so many new things to learn about training falcons and the British aristocracy and grief!) It is taking me forever to read because I can only manage a few pages at a time. There is just so much happening, so much depth and nuance, and I want to enjoy it and also figure out how Macdonald has done it, and in addition to all that, there are her sentences.
They are breathtaking. They startle and delight and prod. They have wit and wisdom and rhythm. These sentences are so good it seems as though you could eat them.
I want to show you just one. It comes on page 16. This is a story about a woman who has been unhinged by grief – her father has died – and she is going to deal with her grief by training a new hawk. But on page 16, the grief is brand new, and this is how she describes it:
Sometimes, a few times, I felt my father must be sitting near me as I sat on a train or in a café. This was comforting. It all was. Because these were the normal madnesses of grief. I learned this from books. I bought books on grieving, on loss and bereavement. They spilled over my desk in tottering piles. Like a good academic, I thought books were for answers. Was it reassuring to be told that everyone sees ghosts? That everyone stops eating? Or can’t stop eating? Or that grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned like beetles in boxes?
The sentence I want to talk about is the last one.
Or that grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned like beetles in boxes?
What’s fascinating is that it’s the fourth sentence in a series. So often, we stop at three. Our ear is trained for three. But Macdonald drives on here with a fourth sentence, and it really feels like it’s driving through – like a freight train or a semi truck. It hits the reader in the gut.
What makes this sentence so powerful?
First, there’s the internal alliteration (comes/can) and rhythm of the opening phrase. “Grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned.” Just say that out loud and HEAR how it rolls off the tongue. Emphasize comes/stages/numbered/pinned and you get it even more.
Then there are those two incredibly specific terms – numbered and pinned. Not simply counted and named, but bound to a number, pinned to a particular spot. The second we read those words, our mind’s race ahead to think of things that get numbered and pinned and without the author’s help, we can’t quite get there, we can’t quite figure out what she means, and then she gives it to us – “like beetles in boxes.”
Readers are constantly trying to stay a step ahead of the author in this way – on the level of a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a chapter and a story. We’re in a dialogue with the author, in a relationship with them, interacting with them at every moment, and this is a perfect example of how it works. We’re stretching, yearning to solve this little puzzle of how grief gets numbered and pinned, or what else gets numbered and pinned.
When she gives us the “beetles in boxes” image it’s so satisfying. It sounds great, for one thing because of the alliteration. Beetles in boxes! She didn’t just stop at the thing that is numbered and pinned – beetles – but she gave them a context, a grim reality: boxes. This evokes something very specific and macabre – dead bugs, displayed bugs, bugs kept under glass for human pleasure. You can’t help but see it – I pictured intense jewel tones, creepy bent legs, shellacked backed bugs, and those terrifying pins -- and you can’t help but feel it, the finality of what has happened to those beetles and to the author’s dad.
The author has been talking about ghosts and the wrecked relationship with food – things that are far from benign – but with that final image of beetles in boxes, she slams us with an image that we can’t shake. It echoes. I read the passage two, three, four times, just to experience the satisfaction of that sentence and the pleasure of that image – gruesome and beautiful.
We all want to engage our reader, to speak to them, to connect with them, to hook them, to move them, and although emotions and expectation and curiosity and desire are underneath everything, making it all work, the tool used to deliver all that is just a few words woven into a simple sentence.
When you think about it, it’s some kind of serious magic.