Writing Tips, Episode 1: Subjects

When I sold my first novel, I knew I would have to create a website. And when I started building that website, I knew a blog was going to be a part of it. It’s sort of obligatory these days. Most of my contemporaries have them, but one thing I decided I didn’t want to do was post writing advice.

I worried it would invite criticism. I worried that, once I started writing for writers instead of readers, my writing would enter a realm I just didn’t want it to be in.

But I’ve been writing and editing for a long time. It’s a big part of my life, and I feel like I should share it. I have this blog, so it makes sense to put it here.

So this is the first in a series of blog posts that will present a wide range of writing tips, from the practical to the theoretical, from the granular to the big picture.

I want to stress up front that I don’t want you to consider these tips as gospel. You’re free to do so, but I would rather you consider them suggestions. I don’t want you to write like me; I want you to write like you. Let me help you find your voice. And if you do and you make that New York Times Bestsellers list, don’t worry about thanking me in your acknowledgements. That will be all you.

But I wouldn’t turn down a royalty.

Kidding aside, here’s the first episode of writing tips. I begin with the fundamental building block of a strong sentence: subjects.

…Where are you going? Okay, this is nuts and bolts, and maybe you find it boring. I promise I’ll get into more interesting stuff later, but for now, I feel like this is an important place to begin.

And frankly speaking, a majority of authors apparently missed this stuff. I firmly believe a good writer develops an affinity for the nuts and bolts of writing, and if it’s not your thing, maybe I’m not your best tutor. That’s fine. There are plenty of other sources of advice elsewhere.

Moving along.

Mix up structures

If you speak English (or any Western language for that matter), you probably have a strong grasp of subjects. It’s where language has conditioned our brains to begin. The foundation of a sentence is [subject]+[verb]. See? I just did it. Easy.

“The foundation of a sentence [<–subject] is [<–verb] …”

The problem is, when writing, we can be hyperconditioned to fall into a rut of plugging words into this formula. So, the first tip is to mix up your structures. Consider the difference between this:

“He went to the grocery store. He picked up a tomato. He threw it at a small child.”

And this:

“He went to the grocery store. In the produce aisle, a particular tomato caught his eye. It was deep red and beginning to wrinkle, suggesting a late stage of ripeness. A small child screaming by the lettuce plucked his last nerve, so he grabbed that tomato and slung it at the spoiled brat.”

Not my best writing, but the point is each sentence features a different subject. It is not all about this despicable character that is not in the least a sliver of my own psyche.

Change perspective

As an extension of this problem, when possible, get the reader out of your character’s head. This isn’t exactly limited to the perspective or the point of view you are using for your story. But if you’re writing in the first person, this is more frequently a problem.

Consider the difference between this:

“I watched the zombie come around the corner.”

And this:

“The zombie came around the corner.”

The latter is preferred (and I’d go one step further and use a stronger verb, but that’s next time). With the former, you are placing an extra buffer between your reader and the action. Or, think of it in terms of film. Is it more interesting to watch the horror on the character’s face as he or she watches the zombie lurch around the corner? Or is it more powerful for the viewer to see it first hand?

Of course, that is up to you. But more often than not, it’s evident the author hasn’t paid enough attention to this. If this describes you, start looking for it.

Short = strong

One last tip on subjects: pick the strongest one in your sentence. In other words, when your subject becomes a long string of words, readers have a tough time pinning it down and can get confused. So, do some word shuffling. Consider this:

“The zombie with the flapping jaw and shredded clothing chased Greg into the alleyway.”

And this:

“Greg ran into the alleyway to escape from the zombie with the flapping jaw and shredded clothing.”

Because of the way our brains work with the English language, it’s much easier to compartmentalize “Greg ran…” than “the zombie with the flapping jaw and shredded clothing chased… .”

So there it is. Three quick tips to get us going. I’m sure there’s more on subjects that I can get to later, but for now, remember to mix up your structures, get your reader out of your character’s head, and use the strongest subject you can fine.

Next time, we’ll get to the second fundamental part of sentence construction: verbs! Yay!

*groan

No, really, it gets more interesting. I promise.

…don’t leave me.

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