A few years ago, an agent gave me the rejection I needed at the time. I had an inbox full of form rejections for my novel. Even a few personal notes with encouragement like “There’s a lot to like about your premise.” More so the usual phrases that soften the blow. “I’m afraid I’m not interested enough in your story…” or “Publishing is a highly subjective business.”
I sent my revised query one more time and mailed the requested pages. The form rejection came with a parenthetical remark.
“…I’m not interested enough in your story (or the telling of it)…”
What did that look like to my eyes?
“Oh, and btw, your writing sucks.”
It took me about thirty seconds to smooth my feathers back down and say, “He’s right. There’s something wrong with my writing.” I always knew, but I needed that nudge to admit it. To do something about it.
My next Google search was this: How to write a good sentence. I didn’t need to tweak my writing. I didn’t need to go to the next level. I needed to go back to the basics. The problem ran that deep.
The search results included How to Write Long Sentences by Eli James on Novelr. Have a look and come back.
In case you skipped it, here’s the nut. Begin sentences with the subject and verb, as close together as possible, as early as possible. Let everything else branch to the right.
My problem wasn’t mastering the long and winding sentences like the beautiful “I fly…” example Eli James used. My problem was that my go-to structure for too many compound sentences looked like the opening sentence of my novel:
Met with encroaching smiles and obligating nods, Alexis Laird wondered if survival was worth the visibility it demanded.
I began with anything but the subject and verb. I had decided this was eloquent writing somewhere along the way, without realizing how it muddied the water. I’d write a paragraph and gaze at it, wondering if anyone would understand it. And I didn’t know why. “Right-branching sentences” answered that question.
The learning never stops, but this remains my biggest epiphany. Today, I still begin sentences with a clause before the subject and verb, but only if that’s the best way to establish a place or time, and only if the clause is short (like the beginning of this sentence or the first sentence of this post). And sometimes for effect.
Typical writer. Learn a rule, then break it. Which works best when you know you’re doing it and why.
I wish those five words—“or the telling of it”—were slipped into the first rejection. I’ll thank that agent one day. Well, I kinda just did.
The picture: Icy branches against a stark blue sky, branching to the right. Then a paint filter.