Venus on Mars

Excellent Sentences

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on December 29, 2009

Wrexie's typewriter

I found this typewriter in the historic Slipher Building at Lowell Observatory; it used to belong to Wrexie Leonard, Lowell’s secretary and more. It’s a Hammond portable, in a sleek wooden case, and its innards look uncharacteristically light and airy (unlike most vintage office machines). It was the unusual keyboard, however, that set my mind spinning off into fictive possibilities.

This typewriter keyboard features weird scientific symbols instead of letters. When Wrexie’s boss told her to take a letter and she pushed a series of these keys, did she understand what she was saying? Can someone actually “type” science?

Some quick web research revealed to me that Hammond typewriters were among the first to feature interchangeable fonts (presumably the scientific font was one of the variations) and that it was the first office machine to be designed to be aesthetically pleasing, more like a musical instrument than office machine. I remembered that when I first came across the machine at Lowell Observatory, it was closed up in its curvy case – my first impression was that there was a music box inside. I was surprised to open the box and find a typewriter.

Many have described music as the universal language, one we all “speak” to some degree, and one we all respond to. Typewriters are considered more mundane in terms of their language output, but what if the typewriter’s language variations allow the typist to “speak” not a verbal language at all, but a series of symbols whose meaning extends far beyond any earthbound language barrier?  What if an everyday act like typing became a creative act in itself, with the symbols on the keyboard combining in unusual and inventive ways?

I have spent the last year and a half typing on my laptop, hoping my output is more than mundane. I have a more or less complete first draft of my novel and now comes the work of trying to figure out what I am saying. The cumulative meaning of all the words and sentences and chapters is my guide as I rewrite, trying to make all the meaningful elements connect in some inventive way.  The editor who didn’t fall in love with my writing said something that I have found useful, that sometimes he found my writing to be very good (“excellent sentences,” he called some of them), but sometimes he felt I was only using words to get the next part of the story told. Sustaining excellent sentences throughout an entire novel  is difficult, he said, but otherwise the writing falls short.

Now I’m going back through it all, spending hours sometimes on one chapter or even one paragraph, considering each phrase, each word, and possible variations that might result in more excellent sentences. I have to keep working until the excellence exists throughout. No words as slackers allowed. No errant passages that don’t fold and blend into a meaningful whole. A well-composed novel should reveal its meaning like a piece of music, each note working its magic in combination with all the others carefully chosen and thoughtfully arranged by the musician.

The rewriting, editing, polishing, finessing that I’m now facing is an arduous task, and my laptop is not a magical machine like Wrexie’s typewriter.  I have no mysterious keys to push in order to create the kinds of cosmic truths I’m trying to describe in my book.  Just the workhorse language I know and use everyday, but I’m trying to turn my composition into excellent sentences that ultimately become exquisite prose.

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