The Science of Good Writing: The Structure of Reader Expectations

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing. You can read the first two posts here and here if you’d like, but you can also just dive right in!

As I discussed in my last post, one key to good writing is to meet reader expectations. If you don’t meet reader expectations, it can pull the reader out of the text, like plucking a long strand of hair out of your spaghetti bolognese. Yuck.

So how do you meet reader expectations?

It can be really hard, and I mean, really hard to know exactly what your readers will expect. Luckily, though, Gopen and Swan give us a few suggestions based primarily on the structure of our prose.

What do I mean by structure? Really, what they’re talking about is sequential order. In fiction, we talk about stories having a beginning, middle, and end. Often–but not always–things happen in chronological order. The beginning of the story tells what happened first; the middle describes what happened next, and in the end, we find out what happened last.

But we can talk about sequential order of nonfiction prose, too, and on an even smaller scale than beginning, middle, and end. We can talk about the order of sections, the order of paragraphs, or even the order of sentences.

These are all very important. But we can also talk about the order of the information and words in our sentences. And that’s where Gopen and Swan focus several pieces of their advice. They essentially have three things to say about sequential ordering within sentences:

  • The first part of the sentence is called the topic position. This is where you put the topic of the sentence, which is usually old information.
  • The second part of the sentence is called the stress position. This is where you put information that you want to stress, or emphasize. Often, this is new information.
  • You should put the sentence’s subject as close to its verb as you can.

I’ll use the bullet points above as examples. I’ll italicize the topic position and bold the stress position.

The first part of the sentence is called the topic position.

In this sentence, “The first part of the sentence” is old information. You know that I’m about to talk about sentence ordering, so the phrase “The first part” is expected information. However, “topic position” was new information at that point, and I wanted to emphasize that piece of jargon. So, I put it in the stress position.

In addition to using the topic position and the stress position in ways that readers expect, you want to keep subjects and verbs as close together as you can, as often as you can. Unfortunately, this does mean you need to be able to identify subjects and verbs. I don’t have a blog post on this topic just yet, but you can check out this quick refresher from grammarbook.com if you’d like.

So let’s use the last bullet point above as an example. I’ll italicize the subject and bold the verb.

You should put the sentence’s subject as close to its verb as you can.

In this case, the subject is right next to the verb. That makes it easier on the reader than, say, this sentence:

The subject of the sentence you, the esteemed author, are carefully writing, with all its great importance to the comprehensibility of the sentence of which it is a constituent, needs to be as close to the verb as humanly possible.

I’m not going to lie. That sentence was as fun to write as it was confusing to read. There are a whole twenty-six words and four commas in between the subject and the verb! Yeesh!

In theory, those rules are pretty easy to follow. But they can be difficult to put into practice. Why? Because they require you to take a step back from your writing and think about the structure of each sentence, which takes time. But if you do take that time, you can make your writing that much better.

Stay tuned for more writing tips from Gopen and Swan! Next up: figuring out what’s missing in a piece of writing. And here’s a preview of past and coming attractions, otherwise known as the other posts in this series:

Happy reading!

New Episode of Gig Hunters Out!

Hey, did you know I publish a serial novel weekly on Tapas? Well, I do! And as of yesterday, episode Nine of Gig Hunters is out!

What is Gig Hunters?

Think Supernatural meets True Blood in the gig economy. Freelance monster hunters Chris Carroll and Loyalty Stevens don’t have a ton in common, except a love of used-to-be-mythical creatures and a need to pay the bills.

Check it out today, and let me know what you think in the comments!

5 Reasons You Should Stop What You’re Doing and Go Read Steel Crow Saga Right Now

I knew I would love Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger from the book’s very first scene, not even five minutes into the audiobook. A character is moping because the boy he has a crush on is interested in a girl, and his younger sister brightly reassures him, “But you can like both! I know kids at school who like both!”

But the book’s extremely good LGBT+ representation not the only reason I continued to love this book the more I listened to it. Hell, no. It has amazing CHARACTERS. Strong THEMES. Outstanding WORLDBUILDING.

But that’s not all. It also has FASHION. And FOOD. And WORDS. Lots and lots of good ones.

And, like all good books, it will give you FEELZ. So, so many feelz.

My goal with this review is to convince you to go read it for yourself. Whether you go bug your local librarian for it, support your local bookstore, grab it from a big box store or online retailer, or listen to the audiobook like I did, I don’t care. Go gitchu a copy so we can nerd out about it together.

Oh, and I should mention, this post has no affiliate links, and I did not receive a free advance copy for review. I’m writing this book because I want, no, need, other people to go read it so we can squee about it together.

And because that is my goal, I’m going to try to write a spoiler-free review. Maybe in the future I’ll write a spoiler-filled review so that you can know precisely what made me squee the most.

For now, though, you can read my spoiler-free squees. So, without further ado, here are the TOP 5 THINGS I loved about Steel Crow Saga.

THE PEOPLE

There are four protagonists in Steel Crow Saga: Tala, a soldier with a secret; Jimuro, the crown prince of a recently-crumbled empire; Xiulan, twenty-eighth princess of a neighboring kingdom; and Lee, a thief with pretty much nothing to lose. Tala has been tasked with escorting Prince Jimuro back to his country’s capital safely, while Xiulan recruits Lee into trying to kidnap the prince. She wants to present Jimuro as a gift to her father in order to win his favor and perhaps a future seat on her own throne.

Each of these characters is a fully realized creation, with their own beliefs, goals, interests, and flaws. They have distinct personalities, which are reflected in their mannerisms, their internal conflicts, and even their dialogue. And despite their flaws—or because of them?—I found myself rooting for each and every one of them, even though most of them are literally working against each other throughout most of the book.

What’s more, as I mentioned before, these and other characters in the book represent a wide spectrum of genders and sexualities in a way that felt natural and not at all tokenizing.

THE WORLDBUILDING

Author Paul Krueger has described Steel Crow Saga as Pokémon meets Fullmetal Alechemist. And it is definitely that, but it’s also so much more (with no shade meant to either Pokémon or FMA).

 It’s a fantasy epic in a world very much but also not at all like our own. The book opens almost immediately after the once-again sovereign nations of Sanbu, Shang, and Dahal have joined forces to overthrow the colonialist rule of the Tomodanese Empire. Each of these four nations—as well as the still-subjugated people of Jeongson—have their own distinct cultures, beliefs, customs, languages, and prejudices.

Krueger paints this world—these worlds—with a thousand tiny brush strokes, small details that make for a gorgeous bigger picture, like a Monet or a Van Gogh. Cars don’t work the same way in Tomoda as they do in Shang. Tala, a Sanbuna, repeatedly laments the lack of coffee in Tomoda throughout much of the book; the Tomodanese are tea-drinkers. The cultures blend and clash in other ways, as well—in greeting customs, in fashion, and, perhaps most interestingly, in food. Don’t read this book while hungry.

One of the biggest ways that these cultures differ is their use of magic. The way Krueger describes these magical systems and the ways the magic looks and feels is magical in and of itself.  

The magic of the peoples of Sanbu and Shang is called shade pacting. A shade pact is a magical agreement between a person and an animal wherein each being promises something to the other in return for a piece of their soul. The animal becomes the person’s lifelong companion, living inside them until they are called.

The people of Tomoda find shade pacting to be… problematic, to put it lightly. Their magic is called metal pacting. They are able to manipulate metal in a number of magical ways—like heating it to make it hotter or moving or guiding it through space. The Dahali, meanwhile, manipulate magic more directly, casting hexbolts made of soul energy.

These distinct, unique modes of magic are deeply entwined in their respective cultures and, in universe, have been used in more than one way to colonize and subjugate—but also to revolt and rebel.

Which brings me to my third favorite thing about this book:

THE THEMES

There’s no way around it, Steel Crow Saga is about empire, and the long, slow, painful process of decolonization. And not just at the macro level, though two of the four main characters are royals whose countries have a history of colonization and the other two are members of colonized nations, only one of which has been recently liberated.

Steel Crow Saga is also about unlearning the internalized biases and personal prejudices that are one of the most harmful tools of empire. It’s also about responsibility, both on an institutional and an individual scale. And on a more personal level, it’s about forgiveness.

THE WORDS

I wish I could be more specific in this review about what I mean when I say, “Krueger does words good.” But I listened to the audiobook, and I’m not in the habit of bookmarking audio segments in Audible, though after listening to this book, I wish I were. But Paul Krueger does words so good that I’m planning on getting at least one text version of the book. I’d prefer print, both because the cover art is divine and so that I can shove it into other people’s hands to make them read it. But since the closest all-English bookstore is a half hour away, I may just go ahead and get it on Kindle now and then buy a print version once I visit the States in December.

What I’m saying is, I’d like to be able to share the specific sentences that made me literally pause the audiobook just to whisper, “Damn, that was good,” to myself while my spouse eyed me with raised eyebrows, but I can’t. At least not yet.

THE FEELZ

Whoo, doggy, the feelz. And boy, do I mean all of them. Steel Crow Saga is a roller coaster of emotions from start to finish, in the absolute best way possible. Hope, despair, betrayal, guilt, joy, sorrow, that little hitch in your stomach when you haven’t quite figured out you like someone yet but they do something and it just hits you in that waySteel Crow Saga’s got it all.

Let me put it this way. I am not ashamed to say I cried in public a little bit as I listened to this book, and I’m also not ashamed to say I outright sobbed at the end, awkwardly and silently because my spouse was on a video call with his adviser in the other room and I didn’t want to disrupt them. I couldn’t help the very loud sniffles, though, so maybe I should have just wailed.

And I think that’s all I can give you without being too spoiler-y. I’ve also droned on for almost 1500 words now, so I’ll start to wrap things up. As a bonus, though, I want to give you the sixth thing I really loved about Steel Crow Saga:

THE REFERENCES

Krueger has been open about a few of the book’s references—Pokémon and FMA, obviously—but those aren’t the only two IPs he pays homage to in the book. And each one I encountered was so delightful, I laughed out loud when I heard it. The first time I heard one, I was like, “Wait, did he just—” but by the second one, I knew it was intentional. Maybe there were more, too, that I didn’t catch, which is another reason I’m so eager to give the book a re-read.

All right! What about you? Have you read Steel Crow Saga yet? If not—what are you waiting for? Let me know in the comments!

Also, if you liked this review, and want to read more of my Book Opinions, you can follow me here or on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @claysad.

Revise and Resubmit… Again.

Remember like two weeks ago when I posted about the revising and resubmitting process in the short fiction market? And how I said it was frustrating because I never got any feedback?

Well, now I have to eat my words because I did get some feedback! Mmm, tasty words.

I didn’t get a ton of feedback, but a little bit of feed back is still feedback, so today I worked on applying it to the story.

And you know what?

It’s a better story.

Big shocker, I know.

I didn’t use all of the feedback, for two reasons. One, I wasn’t sure I agreed with part of it. The editor said a part of the story felt a bit rushed, and I rather liked the pacing of that section. Two, expanding that section would have taken up even more space in 2700-word story I am planning to submit to a journal that seeks stories of 3,000 words and under, and I wanted to expend those 300 additional words at the end of the story. The editor said the ending was rushed, and that, I definitely agreed with.

And I like this ending much, much better than my original ending.

So, I’m going to let it rest for a bit and submit it somewhere else soon. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe they’ll say the same thing, that the part I didn’t change was a bit rushed, or just reject it without giving a reason. Then I guess I’ll give that section another look.

We’ll see how it goes.

Revise and Resubmit

It’s been a week, y’all.

I got two short story rejections two days in a row. One of those rejections wasn’t even emailed to me–I had to go to the online submission portal to check on the story, where I found that actually, it had been rejected two and a half months ago, two days after I’d submitted it. If I did get an email, it got eaten by my spam folder. So that was fun.

Rejections suck. I know all the platitudes–not every story is right for every journal, the market is super saturated, part of the trick is finding the right fit, persistence is key, et cetera. These platitudes abound in academia, too, where I spent the last decade of my life.

I could write a lot of words about how the platitudes work in academia, but I won’t, because I don’t want to put myself in too bad of a mood. But one thing that academia has that the short story fiction market doesn’t is built-in peer reviews.

In academia, when you submit an article for publication, the editor may reject it outright. But most often, the article gets sent out to two separate reviewers, who read and critique your work and provide a recommendation to the editor regarding the article’s potential for publication. These recommendations usually comprise four options: reject, revise and resubmit, accept with minor revisions, and accept.

When your work comes back with a revise and resubmit, you receive comments on your work from each reviewer, and in some cases, an additional set of comments from the editor synthesizing the reviewers’ concerns and making specific suggestions for where to focus your revision efforts.

You don’t get that with short story submissions.

If you’re lucky, you might get some feedback on your story, but I haven’t seen any yet. Then again, I haven’t been actively submitting my short fiction for very long.

I’m not saying that the academic peer review process is perfect. There are a number of reasons why it’s not, but I’m not going to go into them here. It’s just that I wish the fiction writing… world… had a better mechanism for giving and receiving constructive criticism of your work.

I know these mechanisms exist. There are sites like Scribophile, which I have used and like, for the most part. And there are people you can pay to provide feedback on your writing. Most of the writing coaches I’ve found, though, focus on critiquing book-length manuscripts and perfecting your query letters and pitches to editors. And they’re expensive.

As they should be. I know first-hand that providing quality, detailed, useful feedback on people’s writing is difficult, time-intensive labor. I’ve done it. I did it for ten years. On academic writing, but still.

However, paying for critique services is an investment I don’t currently have the finances to do. Especially when I’m writing on spec, as much of/most fiction writers do. Every story you put out into the world, every minute you spend writing and revising and submitting and resubmitting is a financial risk. When do you decide to throw in the towel on a particular story and start with something fresh?

So that’s why my current strategy amounts a bit more to receive rejection, immediately resubmit to next venue. Don’t revise, just keep submitting. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. And then get back to writing.

So this week, I received two story rejections, but I submitted three stories.

I resubmitted the two rejected stories at different venues, and then I ended up writing an entirely new piece based on a new journal I’d found that none of my current finished pieces fit. I needed something shorter, so I wrote something shorter. And submitted it.

And of course, I keep writing my fanfic and my serial fic over on Tapas.

And now I’m blogging.

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.

Just keep writing.