Don't Do IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Yes, I meant to use all those exclamation points.

"What is "IT"?" you ask. "IT" is like "THEM". It's out there somewhere doing things that everyone's pretty sure are shady, but no one really has the specifics.

At some point, anyone who asks for advice on parts of their novel is going to be told "Don't ______", as though doing whatever goes in the blank is a set rule. A few of the big ones are:

Don't use a prologue.

Don't use a dream sequence.

Don't use flashbacks.

Don't start with the MC waking up.

Don't start with the MC on/in a plane/train/automobile (and just to be safe, you should avoid starting with them watching old comedies by the same name).

Don't start with dialogue.

Don't make your first book in first person.

Really, really, really don't make it first person present tense.

Don't end without a happily ever after.

Don't head hop (Okay, this one you should actually not do. It's not a stylistic choice, and it's not something you learn to wield with skill. It's just bad/lazy writing.)

Most of this advice, while well intentioned, is offered by people who haven't actually read the thing they're giving advice on. More often than not, it's a knee jerk reaction that's based on some book they read somewhere a long and undefined amount of time ago. (Usually the same book that told them they need to mail their MS to their own address to protect their valuable idea against all those writer-hating agents who only want to steal their brilliance.)

Or worse, they heard it from the friend who "knows how stuff works".

Pssst... I'll tell you a secret: that friend is an idiot. Make friends with Google. It has more information and will never ask you to burn a Saturday moving their stuff that they didn't even bother to pack.

The mere mention of any of those "don't" elements is enough to set those in the (don't) know to barking like dogs next to Pavlov's bell.

However - and here's the big secret - none of them are forbidden. (Except head hopping. Pick a POV and nail yourself into it. Use a soldering iron. Crazy glue. Staples. Whatever.) The second, and much less huge, secret is that in order to work, they have to be done well.

I didn't start a book with someone waking up, and I'm not sure why anyone would unless they were rousted from sleep by something out of the ordinary, but I have started one with a character in transit (on a bus) - reading a journal, no less... in a prologue.... that was written in 1st person... present tense...

Every request I got for a partial/full was based on that scene.

Later on there's along dream sequence that turns out to be a flashback (the reader assumes she's an adult until the point she turns out to be six) as she lives out a repressed memory.

Later than that, there's another flashback that shifts into 3rd person (because it's information about her past delivered by someone else).

In the end, rather than the "happy" ending, it has the "right" ending. Anything less would cheat both the story and the readers.

And guess what? My MS didn't burst into flames or create some kind of vortex that split the space/time continuum.

So, I guess the best thing to remember is that writers are a bit like pirates - there are no rules, only guidelines.

If the occasion calls for it, go crazy. Wake up on a plane with a mirrored window by your head. Write it in upside down Sanskrit. Start with "The End" and work your way back to the beginning, if that's what it takes to tell your story the way it needs to be told.

But you still aren't allowed to head hop.

5 Chiming In:

Kayeleen Hamblin said...

I love your humor! Rules are for sissy. If you are a hulking, muscle bound, awesome writer with skills.

Terry Towery said...

I head hop. Big time. So there. :p

Josin L. McQuein said...

Thanks, Kayeleen.

Terry, I'm coming after you with my POV staple gun... you have been warned.

Terry Towery said...

Poke. Poke. I gave you an award.

Priya Parmar said...


Yikes! I broke at least four of these rules. My novel has a prologue and an epilogue and is done in a pastiche style of many voices around a central core and that is exactly what my publishers (Simon and Schuster) liked about it. Maybe the verboten nature of these cliched forms have made them fresh again? Thanks for speaking up for unpopular/forbidden formats!

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