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I've lurked in the group long enough and thought it was time to ask about a sentence that I just can't seem to get right. It's the middle sentence, couched between short, rather straightforward sentences. I get hung up on it, whether I read it silently or aloud.

It didn't take Rhys Adler long to see there was something queer about the guy. Nothing gay or anything, and Adler wouldn't give a damn about that anyway, but queer--as in funny, odd, not quite right--was the word culled from the twisted diction of his mind. At the very least, the guy just didn't belong.

Any suggestions for untangling that middle sentence? Different (better) punctuation? Possibly breaking it up into two sentences, even if I commit the sin of starting the second sentence with "But"?

Perhaps at a later time I'll ask thoughts on the appropriateness of using the word "queer" at all. I don't want to offend, of course. I do, however, want to arrest the reader's attention and "queer" does reflect the character's inner dialogue. The whole paragraph, I think, helps set the book's slightly hard-boiled tone.

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    • An interesting sentence, Alex.

      Personally, I don't have a problem with the overall sentence structure or rhythm. The slight convolution – the nesting of subclauses – works fine for me. (Obvious, eh? I use the same all the time myself.)

      The one place I found that sentence a bit cumbersome was the opening: Nothing gay or anything… It's the thing-thing beat that doesn't work. Maybe change anything to suchlike, and exchange the comma-and following it for a semicolon, then break the sentence after anyway.

      On an even more pedantic note, is culled the appropriate word? To cull is to cut, to remove. However, what you want to say is selected (or appropriate synonym). Culled implies that the word queer has been excised from Adler's twisted diction as a result of its use here. Which, while a brilliant premise for a story, probably isn't what you had in mind.

      As to the use of queer, and – particularly – the need to state that you don't mean gay, is it a setting-appropriate term? Is your story set in the late 20th century, or is Adler's character such that his mind is stuck with that language?

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      • Thanks, Rick. I've read some of your comments for others and appreciate getting my own. I will definitely work in some of your suggestions. And thanks for the pedantry. Culled is the wrong word and I will change it. The story is set today, but RA's mind is stuck with the language (see comment to Janet below).

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      • I agree with Rick, it sounds like it works to me. And the word choice calls forth the mentality of a Graham Greene character, so the clarification makes sense if that's appropriate to their age/time. It was also 'culled' that I spotted, and wondered if you meant called/offered.

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        • Thanks, Ben. Graham Greene isn't too far off what I am going for...though hopefully a bit more up to date.

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        • Hi, Alex,

          I don't entirely agree with Rick and Ben.

          This isn’t what you’re asking, but it may point to some reasons that you’re getting hung up. The first thing that strikes me about your (s) : you’ve got a “telly” narrator (“It didn't take Rhys Adler long”, “twisted diction” and “Adler wouldn't give a damn about that anyway”. In fact, the entire construction of the sentence that’s bothering you gives two parenthetic glimpses into RA’s head by a superior power – i.e. not how it feels to the character: one, “and Adler wouldn't give a damn about that anyway” and two, the whole parenthetical expression between the dashes. Besides the syntax, the word choice also suggests that the narrator seems to know more about RA than he does about himself (“twisted diction”) though I’m unsure from this short excerpt. Furthermore, the narrator’s language is decidedly educated, even literary (“culled”, “diction”; “as in” “was the word”), whereas I’m not sure Rhys is (though I’m not certain of this either).

          So what I wonder immediately is, is this relationship between narrator and character deliberate, and if so, why? Is the narrator even more hard boiled than Rhys? – whose name does not suggest a gentle soul, both in sound and possibly, meaning (Is “Adler” meant to suggest “adder”?). Or does he turn the tables on the narrator – which could be very interesting, but not so easy to pull off. How is its effect fundamental to what you want your story to accomplish?

          It also seems that you’re using what Harry Bingham calls “generic language”: phrases that are quite common and which we all tend to fall into, but which do not arrest attention: “It didn’t take long…” “At the very least…”

          So, coming back to your question, you don’t need to rely on “queer” to arrest attention; the whole paragraph can do it – and should. You could omit “or anything” – what does that add? – and the sentence would have a sharper bite without it: “Nothing gay, and Adler wouldn't give a damn”. I’d also omit “funny” – it’s a bit dated in this context. Finally, “which” could replace “was the word” and coming after your insertion, that phrase is even awkward.

          I think that there are some deeper questions than the word choice, though, as I’ve tried to suggest. On the face of it, the passage suggests some very interesting possibilities. I hope that this is helpful.

           

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          • You have given me much to think about, Janet. What is interesting is that you have identified the character's internal conflict as a conflict between the narrator and the character. To be brief, RA is  intelligent and educated, even intellectual and philosophical, but he rebels against that world for various psychological reasons and prefers to be rough and dangerous among the less educated. I need to reconsider whether the conflict that you spotted helps or hinders the internal conflict I'm trying to portray. That will take some thought.

            Yes, there is more than a bit of telling here. Since this is the opening, it may be just easing into a showing narration. Again, I'll give it thought.

            Thanks for the concrete suggestions as well. I think you may be right that the problems in the sentence are related to deeper issues.

            All very helpful.

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            • Hi Alex, thanks for your thoughtful responses. Rhys sounds like a compelling character, and his story sounds like it is full of interesting possibilities. Good luck with it, and keep us posted if you wish.

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            • Hi Alex, well done for taking the plunge, it is fascinating to see how one sentence or paragraph can generate reams of response when thrown to a pack of writers!

              For me I think I agree with Janet. 

              Although it is very hard of course to offer opinion when one reads something out of context. I have no idea what kind of story this paragraph comes from. It certainly doesn't come across as 'hard boiled' to me, it feels a little stuttering and apologetic; almost as if it is scared to offend so is full of explanation. 

              As it is your character's thoughts that bring up the word 'queer' I don't think you need to be squeamish about it. All your explanation about the word lessens the impact of what you are trying to get across to us, namely that this person seems immediately either dangerous or untrustworthy, in the eyes of Rhys. THAT is more interesting than exploring diction in Rhys' mind.

              I hope this helps.

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              • David, Yes, astonishing how much one sentence can evoke!

                "Scared to offend" and "squeamish" perfectly describe my concerns about using the word queer. But I think you are right: being less apologetic would help clean up the clumsiness in the sentence. 

                Thank you. Very helpful.

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                • There are always people lurking in the shadows whose only hobby is waiting to be offended.  Years ago a commercial for a decongestant started with, "Attention men with noses".  A comedian pointed out, "Somewhere there is a man who suffered some terrible accident and lost his schnoz.  Right now he is on the 'phone to his lawyer saying, 'I am very offended by that commercial!'."

                  If my detective was to avoid offending any and all he would sit in a chair (certainly NOT wood "save the forest!" and it could not be plastic 'We HAVE to stop our dependence on OIL!", or woven from hemp and cotton "We cannot keep dumping these agrichemicals on our crops") fabricated from seaweed and bamboo.  The officer certainly would not even be NEAR a firearm of any type and. . .  Well, you get my point. 

                  True story; my mother was offended just because I mentioned I was ACQUAINTED with some lesbians.

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                • Hi Alex. I'm more in the second camp. I found the sentence quite hard to pick apart. I'm copying it here again to avoid going up and down the page and so give specific feedback:

                  It didn't take Rhys Adler long to see there was something queer about the guy. Nothing gay or anything, and Adler wouldn't give a damn about that anyway, but queer--as in funny, odd, not quite right--was the word culled from the twisted diction of his mind. At the very least, the guy just didn't belong.

                  I have no problem with the word queer in any context and I agree that the way he's using it here says something about the character (age and background mostly), but using another ambiguous word after it (gay) strikes me as perhaps unspecific enough to leave ambiguity. I would consider cutting the first sentence more to remove the filtering:

                  There was something queer about the guy.

                  Just this. 

                  The second sentence is a bit long and wordy for my liking. I would chop it up a bit, clear up the 'gay' ambiguity and simplify. For example:

                  Nothing gay in a sexual way - not that Adler gave a damn about that (anyway). Just queer: strange, odd, not quite right.

                  The 'anyway' is optional (it doesn't add much, perhaps just a slight tone of Adler's voice) and I don't think the last part of this sentence is needed at all and it's the bit that tripped me up and felt flowery and forced. The last sentence is fine. So my pared down version would be:

                  There was something queer about the guy. Nothing gay in a sexual way - not that Adler gave a damn about that (anyway). Just queer: strange, odd, not quite right. At the very least, the guy just didn't belong. 

                  That's 38-39 words instead of 57 (a boon in Harry Bingham's mind) and I think it's cleaner.

                  I don't know if that directly answered your question, but that's my take on cleaning it up. Hope it helps in some way.

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                  • Thanks, Sarita. I appreciate you taking the time. I'll add your suggestions, which do make it cleaner, to the others I've received. I'm hoping the various tips will help me come up with the right wording--while remembering that a sentence written by committee might be the worst possible outcome. I'll do my best to keep my voice in it! Thanks.

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