I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey because it has been reported that the lousy prose is contagious. Zoe Williams of the Guardian wrote in her review of E. L. James’ trilogy “Goddammit. I’ve been infected by James’s ominous, staccato delivery. After 1,600 pages of the stuff, you will too. I’m doing it again. I can’t help it.”
Needless to say, James’ books have sold over 100 million copies and has earned the author over 100 million US dollars. It just goes to show that good writing is not necessary for big sales. And it is not just because James’ books are erotica. Stephen King’s books have been trashed by literary critics as predictably as they have climbed the best seller lists. When King won the National Book Foundation award, it should have convinced everyone that his mastery of storytelling and suspense amply made up for his bland prose, but the critic Harold Bloom called it “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.”
I have no ambition of joining the ranks of Proust, Joyce and Faulkner. If given a choice, I would rather be E. L. James. But I do think it is worthwhile to at least try to write well. Strunk and White (and their adherents) have repeatedly taught us that brevity is a virtue in writing. Meanwhile, Brooks Landon promotes the use of long sentences. I personally believe that one should consciously use both because different combinations of long and short sentences give different impressions.
As an experiment, I wrote this:
He entered the room. She was there. He ducked. She shot. The bullet ricocheted off the wall shredding a shower of debris into the dark hallway, filthy and cold, where he crouched on the floor, fumbling for his gun that was not there, the shoulder holster hanging empty and limp.
Four short sentences followed by a sentence that spans three lines. The sudden change in the length of sentences gives the scene a sense of breathlessness. Since these were the only words I had written, I naturally thought of it as the opening lines to a story. But if a story was opening, there should be at least a little more description. So I wrote this:
He entered the hidden room, returning to confirm his suspicions, not expecting an occupant. The lady was there, standing with her purse gun in her hand, her eyes welling with rage. He ducked out. She shot. The bullet ricocheted off the wall shredding a shower of debris into the dark hallway, filthy and cold, where he crouched on the floor, fumbling for his gun that was not there, the shoulder holster hanging empty and limp.
Consider a book that begins with this second passage rather than the first one. The increased descriptions make it easier to visualize the scene, but the sense of urgency of the first passage is diluted. It seems to start out slow, then pick up pace. The two short sentences sandwiched between longer sentences seem to be the turning point. So I continued:
“Give it up!” he shouted his face nearly to the floor. “You couldn’t hit an elephant with that snub nose!”
She shot again. The bullet pierced the door. Splinters flew, some hitting his face, and a cloud of dust erupted from where the bullet landed, close to his leg. Then, silence. His heart pounded. He reached for his ankle holster. His shoulder hurt. It was the wound he got earlier. He had no time to go to the hospital. Somewhere in his mind his rational brain told him that if his adrenaline was high enough he should not feel the pain and could reach for the backup piece if it broke his shoulder in half, which he could not, and he cursed himself, but it did not help him reach his pistol.
This time, it leaves a different impression. The tension is maintained but the structure of alternating long and short sentences produces an illusion of speed. It reminded me of the picture of a snake. A snake has the same number of scales on both left and right sides of its spine. As the snake curves from side to side, scales on the inside of the curve overlap and make the scales look small. The scales on the outside of the curve overlap less and each scale looks large. When an artist paints a picture of a snake, he can make the difference in the size of the scales more pronounced or less pronounced in the snake of the same curvature by distributing the changes differently. When the size difference in the scales of the left and right sides of the snake is large, the snake looks like it is moving. When the scales are all nearly the same size, the snake looks like it is staying still. I thought the same principle might apply to sentences. So, I continued:
“You gonna add another murder to your rap? Give it up, Maud, it’s over!”
Another shot. He cringed. He could not see where the bullet landed. He could not see her through the crack in the door. He listened for the sound of her movements in the room trying to guess where she was and anticipate the angle of the next bullet to come but the ringing of the gunshot in his ears had become overwhelming and he could hear nothing, or he thought he heard nothing. He could barely touch the butt of his gun with his fingertips. He cursed under his breath. His shoulder ached. He groaned. He gave up. Then he reached for his gun again. He reached harder this time. His fingers were barely far enough to pinch it when a stab of pain in his wounded shoulder struck so powerful it stopped his breath like a baseball bat swung full force to his ribs. Sweat erupted on his face. Cold dampness filled his armpits. He gave up. He stopped reaching. He waited, gasping. There was no sound. He crawled backwards a few feet away from the door, wincing and grunting. Slowly he raised his head, leaning against the wall, sliding his back on the dusty wall until he was upright in a stooping position. Now, he could reach the holster on his right ankle with his uninjured left hand. He drew the gun, a PT-25, and immediately felt more secure. She had already fired three shots from her 2 inch snubby, a light-weight but difficult-to-aim revolver with five chambers that gun shops tended to push on unsuspecting first time gun owners, and she probably kept one chamber empty for safety like so many women with little knowledge of guns, which meant that she had only one round left. He stood up slowly sliding his back on the wall, cracked his ankles partly to check how numb his feet were, they seemed okay, and walked slowly toward the door.
It was breezy writing now, and the last part got lazy. Having lived in Japan most of my life, my experience with guns is limited. An American friend questioned the choice of PT-25 as a backup gun. He suggested a Kimber Solo Carry 9mm. And of course a 2-inch .38 is not an inaccurate gun. But in this case, it is being fired by an inaccurate shooter, so the depiction is not so far off. The problem is that the long sentence that was meant to enhance the sense of speed became a drag when it became explanatory. Maybe I should have put some of the explanation in a thought bubble, like:
“I bet she keeps one chamber empty for safety. That means she has only one bullet left” he thought.
But somehow that does not work. In fact, it seems (at least to me) to reflect his chain of thought less clearly than the original passage. It just needed some emphasis that the thoughts were his. So I added “He realized”:
He realized she had already fired three shots from her 2 inch snubby, a light-weight but difficult-to-aim revolver with five chambers that gun shops tended to push on unsuspecting first time gun owners, and she probably kept one chamber empty for safety like so many women with little knowledge of guns, which meant that she had only one round left.
It fits in well with the fact that he now had the gun in his hand and felt more secure and could think more clearly. Maybe long explanatory sentences are not universally bad. So in the following paragraphs, I ended up incorporating more explanations and trains of thought:
“It’s okay Maud. Get a good lawyer. Deal your way out. You don’t have to do this”
He paused at the door wondering if she would shoot again.
“I’m coming in Maud”
He slowly went into the room again, gun first, then one eye over the door frame, then his body. The middle aged woman was holding the snub with trembling hands, still wearing the gown she must have been wearing to the cocktail party last night, standing in a room furnished like a swanky office, incongruous to the decrepit building, a most suitable place for a secret money laundering outfit, a serviceable place for a love nest, and the most ill chosen fort for a desperate last ditch stand. He held his hands up, one hand still holding the small automatic but pointed at the ceiling, approaching the woman slowly and steadily.
“It’s okay, Maud. It’s going to be alright”
It would be okay. He had it under control. He knew that just a few steps further he could take the gun away from her and all would be over. He smiled at her, spontaneously, almost out of relief. Then suddenly she flipped her gun, pointed it up from under her chin and before he could cry “No!” pulled the trigger making her brain erupt from the top of her head in a shower of blood and gore. She fell to the floor, dead, and that was the way it ended. And the first thought that came to his mind was “I am so fucking fired”.
He was not. He had quit the force almost two years ago. But his shocked mind could not process that at the time and he kept repeating in his mind, “I am so fucking fired. I am so fucking fired” until calm finally set in and he called the precinct. When he realized what he had been repeating to himself, he knew the old captain was right. “You’re not a cop anymore, Fred” he would say. “You told me that about ten times already” he would remind him, to which the wise older man would answer, “That’s ‘cause it ain’t gotten through to your brain yet”. He thought it was a load of crap until this very minute when he, with a dead woman in front of him, in a swanky hidden office room with a large brain stain on the ceiling, caught himself repeating in his mind that he was going to be kicked off the police force. Yes, the captain was right. It had not sunk in to him that he really was not a police officer anymore. Somewhere deep in his bones, he was still a cop until this day. And that realization, combined with the pain in his wounded shoulder and the shock of seeing his suspect blow her brains out almost within his arm’s reach weighed down on him with an unspeakable force. He slumped down on an office chair, dropped his gun and wept. He wept until the police came in. He was not fit to be a cop. He was not fit to be a P.I. After a few run-ins with dangerous criminals when he probed too deep as a private investigator, he was gently told by his former colleague to stick to divorce cases, a rare advice he actually followed, of which this case was one. Tailing what appeared at first to be a philandering husband, digging too deep like he always did, lead him through a chain of events that brought him to this hidden cubbyhole in the inner city, a scene of billions in illegal money transfers, a scene of a money fueled illicit affair, a scene of a murder, a scene of a suicide. And now, it was evident that he could not even handle divorce cases right.
As the crime scene investigators lead him out of the building, in handcuffs like any other suspect, he knew he had to quit. He had to find a new life. He had to start over. And that was how a former staff sergeant of the 101st Airborne, a former homicide detective for the Chicago police department, and a former private investigator, a man too decent, too principled and too inquisitive for all three jobs, became Pastor Fredric Donahue Gallagher.
What began as an experiment in the combined use of long and short sentences turned into a prologue for a mystery novel. I had to think for a while before I came up with the right job for this former cop to move on to. First I thought he might become a cook, but it did not seem right. Then it hit me that a Catholic priest fit perfectly. It is a shame that I know nothing about Catholic priests, or I could have developed this story. I wrote another thousand words or so and realized this was going to become corny at one point or another. In fact, it will become something like the samurai stories written by Westerners, full of factual errors and improbable developments.
While I was writing, I found that I could search the web for such information as the crime rate of various neighborhoods in Chicago and which areas were considered Irish neighborhoods. I could find out what the average income was in a given neighborhood. I could navigate the streets with Google street view. All this should really be a big help in writing a mystery story set in Chicago from the comfort of my desk in rural Japan. But there are lots of mysteries set in Chicago by people a lot more competent than I am. Granted there are numerous best sellers out there written by people who clearly knew nothing about their subject matter, Pastor Gallagher will remain a writing exercise at least for the time being.