Category Archives: Craft

Bad advice

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Or perhaps, should I say in this particular case, misguided advice.

I came across something about “five rules writers should keep in mind when writing their first sentence/opening” in my wanderings. Rules for art itself are, in my mind, immediately suspicious. After all, art is subjective and writing, like any other, is no different. I’m not talking about nuts and bolts basics. Of course you should be able to spellcheck. Of course you should ensure your grammar is appropriate. These are not the sorts of rules the author of the aforementioned item was referring to, although one of her items was, to me, spot on: that of not opening a novel or short story with the main character looking in a mirror or waking up to an alarm clock (unless, as I’ve mentioned before, if the character did not believe they would wake up at all) and then following the character around as they do the mundane things people do after waking. I’d add another leg to this rule, and say starting off with a weather report if the weather is inconsequential is a bad idea.

Of the other four, three did not stick with me, and I’m not sufficiently interested to go hunt the thing down to refresh my brain – I’m quite certain there are many, many posts/blogs/videos about exactly the same thing. The fourth, though, did. The rule was never to start a novel with dialogue.

I absolutely disagree with this one. If the story needs to start with dialogue – explicit or internal – and if it isn’t more of the banal nonsense that usually follows the alarm clock opening, then it needs to do that. We are not interested in someone asking another person what they want for breakfast and the other person suggesting oatmeal, with the entire preparation and eating of said oatmeal described by the characters for pages on end. Oatmeal for breakfast doesn’t cut it. Rat burgers for breakfast would. It doesn’t need to be that extreme, naturally, but if a novel opens with dialogue it should deliver a package of curiosity for the reader to open. It should draw them into a conversation with the world and the people the writer has created and make them want to know more. I’m fairly surprised the “no dialogue” person doesn’t seem to realize just how many books – and not just any books, but classics – open with dialogue, either of the explicit/external or the internal variety.

I dreamed I went to Manderly again – Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)

This is considered one of the best opening lines of any novel, and rightfully so. Who could read this and not be interested in knowing what the character is talking about. What or where is Manderly? Why does the speaker say “again”? Was it a good or bad experience? We read on because we want answers to these questions. Maybe it will hold our attention, maybe not, but the first line does its job well.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. –  Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger)

Another fine example. We know the speaker wants to tell us a story, but wants to skip all the crap and cut to the chase, leaving out the things that would likely be both boring and irrelevant to that story.

Call me Ishmael. – Moby Dick (Herman Melville)


“Well,” you might say, “the author of that five rules piece didn’t mean internal dialogue opening the book, but someone actually saying things. What do  you think about that rule now?”

I think exactly the same thing.

“We need you to kill a man.” – The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (Robert Heinlein)

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.” – Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)

In both of these, we have no idea who the speaker is, who they’re talking about, or anything else. I do not, however, see anything wrong with these starts. They would make me read on to find out what’s going on.

There is an implicit promise to the reader that things will be made clear after this, and the writer had better follow up on that, but I can’t see anything wrong with starting a book with dialogue if it is done well. The problem with starting in this way is the same problem as starting in any other way: if it’s done badly, and the writer does not hold up their end of the bargain, it really doesn’t matter what the opening is, because the reader will stop caring if the writer does not get down to business and they’ll move along to another book. That would be the only reason to not begin with dialogue. The only thing all this harping on not starting with dialogue has done for me is a vow to start every book in one particular series I have in mind with dialogue. Who doesn’t love a challenge?


Reading versus watching

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Stephen King — ‘Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.’

This is true. It’s also true that sometimes the apple you bite into is mushy and full of worms, or the orange has gotten blight or froze on the tree before it was picked, something you don’t notice until you’ve already had a few bites.

It is rare (in my opinion, of course) that a movie does an accurate or even a passing job of both hanging on to the original story and being good. Often, it does one or the other well, and rarely both. And sometimes, both the book and the movie are dreadful – the only consistency that exists as it relates to that title. Authors don’t generally have control over adaptations to their work, and I grasp this.

There are exceptions, of course. King would know, given the number of movies made from his books or novellas. Some of the movies are quite bad (Maximum Overdrive), some could be better with better casting (The Shining – Jack Nicholson looked crazy right from the beginning, which kind of spoils his devolvement into madness at the Overlook), and at least one is fantastic (The Shawshank Redemption). Does this mean no books should ever be made into movies? Of course not. I would suggest, though, that if you do see a movie based on a book, you should also read the book if that is at all possible. In some cases, at least for me, I have started, but not been able to finish, those books.

Example: Forrest Gump. The movie was quite good. I found the book to be simplistic pap. The Bridges of Madison County was a passable movie, but again, the book I found to be unreadable.

More recently – and by that, I mean today – I watched Divergent, which is based on the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth. I know, I’m behind the times, but I’m okay with that. The movie was not bad, inasmuch as it’s aimed more toward the teenager crowd. Some cliches here and there (the class, or faction in this case, bully; it just happens that the two people in Dauntless who happen to be Divergent are a woman and a man who happen to fall for one another; one of them is turned against the other but saved by love in the end, and so on) but overall, not a completely terrible movie. So, I decided I should probably read the book, which is my thing to do if I’ve seen the movie first.

I am not a fan of first person narratives. Or of present tense. The book has both. That knocked it down slightly in my head as I started reading, but I got past the urge to purge it from my Fire and kept reading. It also is not terrible, at least not to chapter thirteen, which is where I am currently in reading. The same sorts of cliches, but thus far, the movie is fairly true to the book, so that sort of cancels out the first person, present tense issue a tad.

What’s the point of all this?  As I said above, don’t just watch the movie and think you’ve read the book. That is the child’s way, or the way of people who proudly say things like “I don’t read.” (and I hope there are not too many people surrounding you who say that). There are films based on books that are completely unrecognizable if you have read the book, as almost everything is changed, not always for the better. Plus, if you’re going to be a writer, you must also be a reader. Reading the book and watching the movie, both carefully, and particularly for movies and books that make oodles of money, will give you insights not just about the differences, but allow you to look at those differences and note how they may ultimately impact the telling of the story. Nicholson as Jack in The Shining versus the character portrayed in the book opens a wide gulf of how the story is told: in the book, it takes longer for Jack to reach the crazy point, and you expect this because he is a normal sort of guy, all things considered. One look at Jack in the movie, as depicted by Nicholson, and you simply know the crazy will come on much faster as it seems he’s already halfway there.

Thus ends my not-a-rant-but-interesting thought for today’s entry. Hope you’re writing on whatever schedule you picked or whatever goal you selected to mark your progress. Keep on keeping on.

On the waiting for tales

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George R. R. Martin apologizes to fans for the delay of his latest books.

I recall the furor when one of the previous books in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series was delayed: people act as if books spring from the writer’s mind fully-formed, and flow out onto the page (or computer) perfectly, the first time, and are immediately ready to be printed and shipped.

That isn’t how it works.

Even if the writer has been thinking about the work for years, and has scenes clearly defined in their mind (ahem, me), it still takes the effort of getting it all down, properly, logically, and coherently. It takes effort to revise it to make it the best it can be. Then it takes more time for whoever the team is (agent, editor, writer, etc.) to get it finally prepped and released.

I understand the frustration of waiting for an author’s next book. But I also understand that something I can read in a couple of hours – or, in GRRM’s case, four to six hours – takes months or even years for the work to be written in the first place.

For myself, I prefer to stick with a general rule that a first draft should take three to four months, tops. This seems to me to be the best length to ensure a good product but also to avoid getting so sick of the thing that you might drop it and switch to some shiny new idea. While I may have been thinking of all these tales in my head for years, I do not believe spending those same years in actually writing them will improve them in any significant form, and may result in them never being done at all.

So where does this leave me, the writer who has not yet started writing anything? Finally realizing that like all the other things in my life that I do as a “job” (for which I get paid currently or not) this has to be treated the same way. I had decided Monday that Tuesday was going to be the start, but alas, wound up so sick on Tuesday and into Wednesday that I barely did anything at all on or for any of them.  I believe that most of that was due to even less sleep than my usual insomia allows over the past four days or so, as sleep deprivation can have an impact on a number of things, health-wise. I slept most of Tuesday evening into Wednesday morning, and today is a vast improvement over yesterday.

Since life requires that we remain flexible, I took it easy today, and I will reset the begin date to tomorrow. Thursday will be the day I finally decide that getting all this out of my head is better than dismissing it all as not worth the effort, because who wants to be haunted by all the things they might have done, that were in their power to do, based on an underlying fear that is likely unwarranted and may very well be a falsely and maliciously provided narrative by a hateful person from earlier in their life? I may decide to talk about that later, but for now, it’s time to kick those particular demons to the curb and get them out of the way.


And now we are renewed

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Another year, another life. Or part of a life, each day a new one, keeping us moving along.

Nothing wrong with that!

New years always come with new resolutions. People want to write more, lose weight, exercise more, clean out clutter, save money, eat better, read more, spend more time with their families, and on and on and on. Most people fail to keep those resolutions, and the reasoning or rationalization for that is usually always the same: not enough time, not enough money, not enough energy. Part of the problem with these is that they are far too vague to be meaningful. If you want to exercise more, how much is “more”? For someone not getting any regular exercise at all, a simple walk around the block every day would be more. What does “eat better” really mean? What’s the “more” in “write more”, and is that time or words or pages?

A better way, I think, is not to make resolutions. Instead, make these goals “I wills”, and make them meaningful. Instead of a resolution to read more, make it “I will read one book per month.” Instead of a resolution to write more, make it “I will write at least 500 words per day.” The goal should be concrete and doable. Don’t be the person who hasn’t regularly exercised in years showing up at the gym on January 1 to work out for three hours, only to find the next day they can’t move. If you are easing back into something – working out, changing eating habits, writing – it’s perfectly fine, and almost necessary, to take small steps and work up to something larger. Maybe your “I will” is “I will write 2,000 words a day.” That is a lot of output if you have not been habitually writing at all. Break it into smaller steps: “I will write 500 words every day for three weeks, then 1,000 words every day for three weeks, then 1,500 words for three weeks, and then write 2,000 words every day from there forward.”

It is possible to get from point A to point B. But you need a map of some kind to get there. Make your map. Plan your route. Reach your goals.