Notes from Loncon 3: The perfect sentence

You Write Pretty

Geoff Ryman (no show), Greer Gilman, Frances Hardinge, Christopher Priest, E J Swift

This panel was a fun one. Four authors proposed their favourite sentence from a fantastical work and defended it to the audience and the rest of the panel. The winner was selected by an audience show of hands.

The winner was Frances Hardinge’s pick from Jabberwocky:

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood
And burbled as it came!

The points in favour of this sentence are that while it is nonsense verse – a playful experiment – the made-up words have meaning because of their music. It exists on the line between comical and eerie. The best monsters are those half-glimpsed. Jabberwocky is such a monster because it is described with unknown words.

E J Swift’s proposed sentence was from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad:

But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand—it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.

The points in favour of this sentence are its energy as it pinwheels through the stream of consciousness, the justification for stealing a wallet, and that while it does so it displays such a great deal of self-awareness on part of the narrator.

Christopher Priest’s proposed sentence was the first sentence of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:

There was a wall.

The points in favour of this sentence are its classic simplicity, its brevity. The sentence is both declarative and symbolic (summing up as it does the main theme of the whole book).

Greer Gilman’s proposed sentence was another one from poetry, Andrew Marvell’s The Garden:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.
I fear a lot of the discussion of this sentence went over my head. The points in its favour were the many connections it included both backwards and forwards through the history of the fantastical.
There was also general discussion of what makes a good sentence. These were my takeaways:
  • A sentence is a building block and as such has a function to perform. Different sentences have different roles. A perfect sentence is one that does the job that has been assigned to it elegantly. Sentences don’t have to be beautiful to be effective.
  • Sentences can be weighty in context. Many good sentences come late in a work because they have the full story working towards them. In contrast, opening sentences have a different task – often to be striking.
  • Kill your darlings? Opinions split on this one. Some panellists agreed, take the sentences out and put them somewhere where they can be reused or reabsorbed into more appropriate contexts. Frances Hardinge characterised a ‘darling’ as “a splendid soloist, who is not playing with the rest of the orchestra.” On the other hand, Christopher Priest’s attitude to the urging to kill darlings was “It’s my book. my words. Sod ’em. Sometimes your darlings are really good!”
    I loved both of these quotes – as you might be able to tell from the fact that I transcribed them verbatim in my notes.

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