I found that the most marvelous thing about learning how to write is that it’s basically a process of learning how to love something, not only the action itself, but also the object of the action. And in my experience, you typically go from appreciating big things, to small things. When I wrote my first short story I was ridiculously proud of it, even though in hindsight there was hardly a good sentence in it. But it was a good story, and that’s how my love affair with writing began. Once I had written that first story, I started developing a style, story by story, and more and more I narrowed down my attention to the smallest unit: the sentence. Rather than fretting about the story, I became obsessed with writing the perfect one. I was (and still am) dedicated to writing long, flowing, but perfectly balanced sentences. You can spot them from a mile away, a writer who loves sentences; you can feel how lovingly the words have been handled.
‘Phraseology’ is defined as ‘a particular mode of expression, especially one characteristic of a particular speaker or subject area’. The word ‘phraseology’ is (ironically) actually a mistake, coined erroneously in Greek as ‘phraseologia’ in the 1550s, from the Greek word ‘phrasis’ (‘way of speaking’) and ‘logia’ (typically defined as ‘reason’, or the ‘study of’). The correct form would have been ‘phrasiology’, but alas, it was not to be. Originally the word denoted a ‘phrase book’, but at the beginning of the 1660s it started being used to refer to a ‘way of arranging words, characteristic of style and expression’. The more you know.
One of the writers whom you can spot from a mile away as being in love with sentences, is F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read his Tender is the Night when I just started writing, and about every other page I felt like throwing the book at someone’s head—that’s how brilliant his phraseology was. A case in point: ‘On the centre of the lake, cooled by the piercing current of the Rhône, lay the true centre of the Western World. Upon it floated swans like boats and boats like swans, both lost in the nothingness of the heartless beauty.’
I always imagine a bomb dropping after the end of this sentence. I actually felt rather put off when I finished Tender is the Night, not because I didn’t like it—on the contrary—but because I felt that I would never be able to write sentences like that. I didn’t give up, however, maybe because I felt more moved by so much verbal beauty than daunted by the job of emulating it—which, let’s face it, I’ll never be able to do anyway. Which is fine; only F. Scott Fitzgerald can write Fitzgeraldian phraseology, and that’s how it should be.
On the particulars of the story in Tender is the Night, I admit I am a bit unclear, partly because it’s been over two years since I read it, but also because the plot was rather vague. Which may or may not be a bad thing. Following up on something I already touched upon in my last blog post, there are writers who will tell you that story is more important. And indeed, I need to pay attention sometimes not to lose myself in phraseology and forget about the bigger picture. But while both are important, I found that there is a marked difference between a good story and a good sentence: a good story, with a good plot and fascinating characters, keeps you going. A good sentence, however, can make you stop.
‘Stop and smell the roses,’ they say. This, I think, is what great literature does. Not good literature; good literature spins an interesting and compelling story which keeps you continuing on to the next chapter. But great literature can make you stop; it freezes the plot for a minute and it points a finger: look at this sunrise, at this blade of grass, at this freckle on that girl’s upper lip. And, maybe for the first time, you look, and you see it. This, I think, is what great literature can do: it makes you stop and smell the roses. Which can be quite separate, by the way, from the story itself, because a good sentence may not be relevant to the plot at all (in fact, I find that sentences that advance plot are rarely very poetical or profound; plot prefers simplicity). And, as I found with Tender as the Night, I felt like I could trust a writer with such compelling phraseology (even though I did not immediately see where the story was going), and trust that he would take me on a journey which would leave me feeling satisfied.
You can take it a bit too far, of course. In my family there exists a culture of reading mostly based on ‘does this sentence work’? When judging whether a book is worth reading, me, my father or my sister have been known to look at the first page and read the first sentence, and then go, “good sentence, I’ll read this book” or “boring sentence; I’ll skip this one”. This, of course, is getting really close to judging a book by its cover, although judging it by its phraseology might be considered slightly more literary. But I must make sure not to take it too far either, this love of sentences.
Don’t get me wrong: I think it is quite essential that you should love sentences as a writer. In general, my reasoning is that if I can trust you to build a perfectly structured, esthetically pleasing sentence, then I can trust you to do on macro-level (in terms of plot) what you demonstrated so competently on micro-level (in terms of sentence). Of course, this is a theory which doesn’t always work; there are writers who can compose exquisite sentences, but absolutely stink at plot. For the record, I am not trying to be one of those, but I admit that I would rather be a writer who writes a story with a bad plot and good sentences, than a story with a marvelous plot which is poorly executed. In fact, I think that writing guides too often pay too little attention to this: they tell you a dozen things about characterization, plotting, “show don’t tell” and God knows how many other things, but relatively few writing guides give much attention to that smallest unit in the story. Which I perfectly understand, by the way: certainly for beginning writers, it is important to think on a macro-level first, because if you have to worry about how well-formed your sentences have to be, you’ll never put a word on paper. But once you have gained some self-confidence as a writer, and don’t feel daunted to have a closer look at your writing, I think having a look at your sentences might be a good place to start. Your phraseology forms the building blocks of what a story, in the ground, is: a collection of sentences. Before you can erect a good building, you have to make sure that those building blocks are solid; otherwise it will crumble before you even finish it.