Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore

Some time ago I cheekily posted the three rules for writing a novel. It produced a spirited discussion on what is a “rule” and what is a “principle,” but by and large there was agreement that these three factors are essential to novels that sell.
Today I’d like to discuss some writing advice writers would do well to ignore.
Where does such advice come from? I have a theory that there is a mad scientist in Schenectady, New York, who cooks up writing advice memes and converts them to an invisible and odorless gas. He then secretly arranges for this gas to seep into critique groups across the land, infecting the members, who then begin to dispense the pernicious doctrine as if it were holy writ.
I now offer the antidote to the gas.
1. Don’t start with the weather
Verdict: Baloney
This meme may have started with Elmore Leonard, who once dashed off a list of “rules” that have become like sacred script for writers. If his advice were, “Don’t open a book with static, flat descriptions” I would absolutely agree.
But here is why the rule, as stated, is baloney: weather can add dimension and tone to the opening disturbance. If you use it in that fashion, weaving it into action, it’s a fine way to begin.
Look at the opening of Bleak House by Dickens, or the short story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” by Stephen King. Or the quieter beginning of Ann Lamott’s Blue Shoe. All of them use weather to great effect. Here’s a Western, Hangman’s Territory, from a great writing teacher, Jack Bickham:
   The late spring storm was breaking. To the east, boiling blue-gray clouds moved on, raging toward Fort Gibson. To the west, the sun peered cautiously through a last veil of rain, slanting under the shelf of clouds and making the air a strange, silent bright yellow. The intense, muggy heat of the day had been broken, and now the early evening was cool and damp, and frogs had magically appeared everywhere in the red gumbo of the Indian Nations.
   Eck Jackson threw back the heavy canvas under which he had been waiting. His boots sank into the red mud as he clambered out of his shelter between two rocks and peered at the sky.
If you think of weather as interacting with the character’s mood and emotions, you’re just fine to start with it.
2. Don’t start with dialogue
Verdict: Baloney
Starting with dialogue creates instant conflict, which is what most unpublished manuscripts lack on the first pages. Sometimes this rule is stated as “Don’t start with unattributed dialogue.” Double baloney on rye with mustard. Here’s why: readers have imaginations which are patient and malleable. If they are hooked by dialogue, they will wait several lines before they find who’s talking and lose absolutely nothing in the process.
Examples:
“TOM!”
No answer.
“TOM!”
No answer.
“What’s gone with that boy,  I wonder? You TOM!”
No answer.
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room . . . 
        – (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
 “Any thoughts that you’d like to start with?”
“Thoughts on what?”
“Well, on anything. On the incident.”
“On the incident? Yes, I have some thoughts.”
She waited but he did not continue. He had decided before he even got to Chinatown that this would be the way he would be.
       –  (Michael Connelly, The Last Coyote)
“Name?”
“Robert Travis.”
“Occupation?”
“Mining engineer.”
“Place of residence?”
“Seventh Base, Jovian Development Unit, Ganymede.”
“Reason for visiting Luna?”
“I’m checking on performance of the new Dahlmeyer units in the Mare Nublum fields. We’re thinking of adapting them for use in our Trendart field on Ganymede.”
“I see . . .” The port inspector fumbled through my papers. “Where’s your celemental analysis sheet?”
– (Dwight V. Swain, The Transposed Man)
3. No backstory in the first fifty pages
Verdict: Spam (a step up from baloney)
If backstory is defined as a flashback segment, then this advice has merit. Readers will wait a long time for backstory information if something compelling is happening in front of them. But if you stop the forward momentum of your opening with a longish flashback, you’ve dropped the narrative ball.
However, when backstory refers to bits of a character’s history, then this advice is unsound. Backstory Bits (I call them BBs) are actually essential for bonding us with a character. If we don’t know anything about the characters in conflict, we are less involved in their trouble. (Read Koontz and King, who weave backstory masterfully into their opening pages).
I’ve given writing students a simple guideline: three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages. You may use them together, or space them apart. Then three paragraphsof backstory in the next ten pages, together or apart.
I’ve seen this work wonders for beginning manuscripts.
4. Write what you know
Verdict: Baloney
Sounder advice is this:
Write who you are.
Write what you love.
Write what you NEED to know.
5. Don’t ever follow any writing advice
Verdict: Stinky baloney
There may be a few literary savants out there who can do this thing naturally, without thinking about technique or craft. And those three people can form their own group and meet for Martinis.
Every other writer can benefit from putting in some time studying their craft. I’ve heard some writers say they don’t want to do that for fear of “stifling” the purity of their work. Some of them get a contract and their books comes out in a nice edition that sell 500 copies. And then they get bitter and start appearing at writer’s conferences raging how there is no such thing as structure and you’ve all wasted your money coming here, and you should just go home and write. (This has actually happened on several occasions that I know of).
So here is my final bit of advice for today: don’t be that kind of writer. 

1+

And a Ho Ho Ho!

I would like to follow John Gilstrap’s heartwarming blog (you wear that tux quite well, my friend) with a comment or two about gift giving, or to be more specific, giving books, in all of the permutations in which they are available in this Christmas season 2010. The planets aligned and it struck me, once again, that we live in a wondrous age. So many choices that it might drive a person mad. But what a way to go.

I have just finished reading Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. It is the first of three planned volumes, the complete work presented as Samuel Clemens intended, right down to his request — nay, demand! — that it not see the light of day until one hundred years after his death. Dribs and drabs of it have been published before now but this is the mac daddy, right here. It is sharp, nasty, clever, astute, prescient — Clemens predicted the e-book, believe it or not — and really, really funny. There is a good laugh every paragraph or two. The folks at the U. of C. at Berkeley did a remarkable job of putting this together, especially when you consider that it was compiled from several feet of handwritten notes, transcriptions, and the like. Some reproductions of Clemens’ handwritten passages are included, and I assure you that if I had been assigned the task of herding this particular gang of cats I would be in a quiet room sipping tranquilizers and listening to Michael Hedges CDs until the end of my days. It is available for free online at www.marktwainproject.org, and in an ebook version, but hunt down a hardcover version and gift it to a bibliophile. This is a work that is meant, was born, to be held in hand (well, hands, actually,) and read the old-fashioned way.

You can gift ebooks now, in some formats, and a couple of interesting works which are ebook-only appeared this week. Marcus Wynne, long a favorite of the intelligence community which he has been a part of, has returned after too long an absence with a new stand-alone thriller entitled WITH A VENGEANCE. Wynne is painfully aware of the way in which the world works, away from the theories and hypothetical and think tanks. Marcus deals with front lines, hand to hand with the terrorists in the trenches; WITH A VENGEANCE will put you on the edge of your seat and keep you there for several hours. Some of those who read this book, pre-publication, said it was too powerful, too frightening, for the reading public. I read it two years ago and have never forgotten it, particularly the first third of it. Anyone you gift this work to will either love you forever or never forgive you. Or both.

Dave Zeltserman is one of those thriller and noir crime writers who has slowly but steadily moved from the “critically acclaimed” list the “must-read” list of mystery and thriller fans. His literary thriller The Caretaker of Lorne Field transcended genres, and will undoubtedly receive several “best of” nominations when the various and sundry literary awards start to rev up next year. Zeltserman has a new, ebook only work just out entitled Vampire Crimes, in which he cuts across genres yet again, a crime tale of the undead in which Natural Born Killers meets Near Dawn. Don’t give this one to your niece with all of the Twilight posters in her room. You could give it to her dad, however.

One of the most interesting projects of all that came across my desk last week, however, wasn’t an ebook or a hardcover, but an audio book by Jim Fusilli. It has been far too long since I’ve seen a book-length work from Fusilli, and Narrows Gate is book length, but not available as a book. It is an original work commissioned for audio by audible.com, the first to my knowledge by a single author (The Chopin Manuscript, of course, was an collaboration of many). It is part novel, part performance piece; I remember when radio dramas were still available, and if they were still in existence, they might sound something like this dark and gritty mob tale set on the mean streets of Hoboken, New Jersey in the 1940s. I don’t normally listen to audio books as I can read faster than I can listen, but this is worth making the exception for; and if you have someone who loves crime novels and audio books, they will be in your debt if you present them with this.

Your turn now. What are you giving, book-wise? And what do you wish to receive?

0

The All Important Final Clause

By John Gilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com

As an author, I believe that I make a silent contract with my readers to provide them with a complete entertainment experience. The suspense is a given (I hope) but there are also the light moments, the warm moments, and even the occasional tear-jerking moment. If I do my job right, I’ll hook ’em with the first line, run them through a roller coaster through all the middle chapters, and then, at the end, leave them feeling . . .

Well, it depends. More times than not, I want that last moment we have together to be one of those where you gently close the book, maybe squeezer it a little, and then say, “Jeeze, I wish it wasn’t over already.”

Think about all the ink we’ve spilled here in the Killzone talking about kick-ass beginnings. I think that endings are even more important. It’s not just about tying up loose ends, either, although obviously that’s important. I’m talking about that final note in the literary symphony. Is it a cymbal crash or a sweet pianissimo? Maybe we want them to have trouble reading through their tears.

Whatever our plan, it’s up to us and us alone to make it happen. That last scene—the last moment my readers and I have together—mean a lot to me. I agonize over it. I look at those last sentences as the final clause in the contract that I make with the people who choose to read my work.

I’m a student of last lines. Here are some of my favorites:

“And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.” — William Golding, Lord of the Flies

“He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” – Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

“But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” –Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.” –Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

“But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.” –A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

“. . . together they cried like babies on national television.” – John Gilstrap, Nathan’s Run

Come on, you must have a favorite finale to share. Let’s have it.

0