June 18th, 2013

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

"10 things all aspiring novelists should know"... maybe.

(Original here)

Writing advice is... well... cheap. You can find it everywhere. It's mostly harmless, as far as it goes, but then - sometimes - I come across a list which I begin itching to annotate. Here's one such:

1. Your novel is not a personal journal. Consider the reader.

Sounds pretty basic, but when you unpack it the whole thing is nonsense. Absolutely, a novel isn't a personal journal - and there is a lot to be said about the adage that when you find yourself not telling a story but preaching a sermon from your own personal soapbox it's time to pack up the Speaker's Corner paraphernalia and walk away. BUT. This sort of thing is painfully obvious. It will scream from the page, if it is practised. All you have to do, in order to "consider the reader", is to remember that a story's PLOT and its THEME may be two very different things - and quite possibly there are themes that you shouldn't consider writing about because you are too close to them. On the other hand all rules are there to be broken and if you are a powerful enough writer AND are very close to an issue what comes out in novel form can change the world. Sure, consider the reader. But first of all, consider the writer. The potential "reader" of a potentially published book is a long way away while that book is still being created. The best way around this is to get a trusted beta reader, possibly one whose worldview isn't identical to your own - if your first reader tells you that you're preaching, tone it down. Problem solved. But it's the writer who needs to be considered here. The readers aren't there yet. Not for a long while.

2. Writing is a business. You enter into an agreement with a reader. You agree to entertain in exchange for their money and emotion. You agree to inform for their time.

No. PUBLISHING is a business. Writing is something else, something that is a difficult cross between an art and a craft. And your only responsibility is to provide the best story that you are capable of producing. What happens to it afterwards... is not yours to control. What you "owe" the reader is that,a nd only that. And once it's out of your hands, readers who pick up the published version of your story are going to bring their own baggage, their own vision, their own interpretations into the thing - and you have absolutely no way of knowing (and therefore cannot be responsible for) what emotions your book arouses in them. You cannot, CANNOT, write the perfect book for every reader, and trying to do it will kill you. And just what does "agree to inform for their time" mean, exactly? Sure, I've learned some of the most fundamental human truths from fiction. That's partly what it is FOR. But it isn't a class, or a course, or a school. Fiction is lies breathed through a tissue of silver that is a thin veil of truth; the thing that the readers get from this isn't "information". They can go to the encyclopedia (or, in these cyberdays, to Google) for their information. They want wisdom from ficiton, not knowledge. And wisdom has never been a "business". You cannot put a price on wisdom. So writing that wisdom down is not a business, as and of itself. Publishing... is a whole different animal.

3. Readers don’t like charmless heroes. Just because your protagonist happens to be an anti-hero does not mean you are free to make him or her 100% unlikable.

COrrect - to a point, But charm isn't required, really. What is required is that you CARE ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS TO A PROTAGONIST. The most likeable character in the world is rendered irrelevant when the reader fails to connect with that character to the point of caring about their ultimate fate. I can list numerous novels where the protags were charming as all get go and I couldn't care less which way they jumped. And if this were the ultimate rule what about, say, Thomas COvenant (whose charm quotient was as close to ultimate zero on the charm scale as it is possible to get - and who somehow - through pity? through sheer frustration at his existence? - still managed to protag his way through a number of successful novels...)?

4. Only experienced novelists who have successfully completed two published books should attempt to use an anti-hero as a protagonist.

Ferchissakes. See point 1. You're preaching again. One man's anti hero is another man's, er, freedom fighter (for whatever freedom you care to be fighting for). If you are good enough you can make it work - it's been done. IT HAS. Successfully. Hannibal Lecter, anyone...? Elric of Melnibone? In other words, beginning writer, you may not succeed the first time you try something like this - but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try it if a particular story is where your passion lies. Passion trumps rules. You'd be surprised where you can take a reader if you and your story (and your anti-hero protagonist) set their soul on fire.

5. Antagonists should be people, not things.

Okay. So then "Jaws" should not have been written. "The Perfect Storm" should never have been written. For that matter, if you take it to an extreme, the One Ring in "Lord of the Rings" is the ultimate antagonist in that story. Really, now? Really? I'm sure you can add to this list. Even the most basic and pared down list of posssible plots includes "man versus nature" - so there's that; and there are any number of objects which have worked quite well in literature as "antagonists" over the centures that we have been telling stories. Could we be just a tad less prescriptive and a little more open minded here...?

6. If you aren’t willing to listen to advice, if you aren’t able to learn from your mistakes, and if you aren’t prepared to let go of stories nobody wants to read, you will probably not succeed.

...you mean like me, here, taking THIS advice apart...? [grin] But seriously. Yes, you should listen to advice from more experienced voices. Yes, you are going to make mistakes (please don't think you won't) and if you are any good at all you WILL learn from them. There ARE stories which you will love fiercely but which you will have to shelve and get on with something new if you want to get anywhere at all. But first... but first... you have to write those stories, you have to make those mistakes, and you must not be afraid of that. This is what the writing apprenticeship is all about, and everyone's gone through it. EVERYONE.

7. You have to read a lot to be able to write.

The first thing in here so far which I can greet with a complete and unequivocal AMEN.

8. Using examples of famous authors who were published more than 30 years ago to justify long passages of description in your boring manuscript is not a good idea. Publishing has changed. Readers have changed.

Hm. Robert Jordan, anyone...? Describing every step anyone in his books ever took, every meal they ever ate, every breath they ever drew...? And yet somehow still read...? How about "Game of Thrones" with its thousands upon thousands of pages worth of description...? I think the rule is, "don't be boring". The readers haven't changed THAT much - "don't be boring" is all that is required. You ARE allowed to write lush and detailed. Yes, you damned well ARE. Just know your limits, and stop before you get there, is all.

9. Self-publishing does not mean you don’t need to pay somebody to proofread and edit your book. Readers are insulted when they find mistakes in books. It’s like serving guests dinner on dirty plates.

Yes, okay, I'll go with this. Writers are notoriously too close to their own work. If you do NOTHING else with your self=published book, invest in a good copy editor. Trust me on this. You can thank me later.

10. Always delete the first three chapters of the first draft of your first three novels. It will always be filled with backstory you don’t need.

ANY piece of advice that begins with "Always" or "Never" is to be discarded immediately. Because there is no such thing. There is NO "one true way". yes, you are likely to err on the side of starting your story before it really begins, especially when you are just beginning to practice the craft - but following this bit of advice blindly is simply going to land you in quicksand because the backlash can be fierce - yes, you don't want endless exposition in the front of your book, but you also don't want to fling characters about whom your reader doesn't know nearly enough to care about what happens to them straight into the jaws of conflict, and expect your reader to stay while these strangers are inexplicably whacking at each other for reasons which you (because you followed this advice) mercilessly cut out from before the conflict happens. yes, there is a lot to learn in the writing craft - and one of the most important lessons is that of Michaelangelo who, when asked how he created his statues from a block of marble, responded that he started with the block and just chipped away everything that wasn't the statue. If the first thing you happen to find as you're chipping away at your block of marble happens to be a hand, don't chop off the fingers because you haven't figured out the rest of the arm yet. Shake hands, be nice. Take it easy. Let us get to *know* your story before you throw it snarling in our face. And remember that no rule is absolute - think about James Michener and his "And the Earth cooled" beginnings - and look at how that worked out for HIM. Repeat after me - there IS no "Always". There is just you, and what is best for YOUR story. Yes, by all means listen to advice - but in the end write the best story you know how to write, and then trust it. That is your only debt to the story, and to anyone who takes it forward after you're done. The readers will take care of themselves.