Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Few Notes on the "Rules" of the Craft

(Marissa wrote an excellent column on lessons learned in the writing trade a few weeks ago. If you haven't read it, yet, you should. You can go ahead and do that now, if you'd like. I'll wait. My column this month is not so much a response to hers as a footnote.)

I am by nature contrary. Most of the interesting stories from my childhood begin with someone telling me I couldn't do something.

Early on in my career - as in before my first sale - an editor who had taken several fledgling writers under his wing (including, if memory serves, our own Dayton Ward) told us that how a story opens determines whether the reader (or, more importantly, the acquisitions editor) will continue reading past the first page. Among several tips on writing openings, he told us that we should never open a story with talking heads (that is, people talking with no sense of place,
context, or action), with the character waking up, or with a description of how bored and boring the protagonist is before whatever exciting, life changing event the story is about happens. Me, being me, proceeded to write nothing but stories that began with talking heads (which actually played to a strength of mine, more on that in a moment), the narrator waking up, or the character bored out of his or her skull wishing something would happen.

The first short story I sold opened with a talking head – a guy dictating his diary and random thoughts to a recorder. My second sale opened with the narrator waking up. My third with, you guessed it, one hundred and thirty-seven words of the lead character literally siting at his job wishing something, anything at all, would happen to end the monotony of his existence.

Do these three sales prove that rules are meant to be broken, or some similar bit of foolishness cosplaying as wisdom?
They prove that I'm hard headed. Over the three years it took me to sell those three stories, I wrote and submitted over forty more that did not sell. If I hadn't insisted on doing things my way – which is to say the opposite of what I'd been told – I almost certainly would have sold more stories and sold my first story sooner.

One thing my early mentor said that I took to heart immediately: The reader does not owe us, the writer, a chance. Or the benefit of the doubt. Or even one second of their time – we can't ask or expect the reader to bear with us while we get going. We owe the reader the best story we can write, delivered in the most engaging and entertaining way possible.

Here's the 'more in a moment' thing about talking heads:
Dialog is the heart of every scene (or monologue, if the person is talking to herself). I say that because I started out to be a playwright - which is all about telling a story through the words of people talking on a stage. My first, rapidly jotted draft of a scene is almost always dialog - quotes with an initial to identify the speaker and the rare note on scene or blocking or business. Later I fill in the specifics of where they are and what they're doing. More than one writerly friend who never aspired to playwrighthood has tried this technique and reported that by first going with the flow, the give-and-take of the spoken word helped them "see" the conversation/confrontation as it would play out—which in turn made it easier to structure the movements and setting of the scene.
That's my only original pro tip.

But I'll leave you with a better one:
Don't write what you know. Write what you want to know. Keep pushing yourself, keep growing as a writer.


Charles Gramlich said...

I agree absolutely on "write what you want to know." As for dialogue, the vast majority of books I've picked up and put back down after the first few lines began with dialogue. Ann Rice's "Interview with the Vampire" is a good example. It's my own contrariness, I guess, or just my weirdness, but almost always opening dialogue feels like talking heads to me. I want to be in a setting first and then I can consider the people and what they have to say.

KeVin K. said...

Oh, I didn't mean always start a story with dialog. In fact, one of my points was that being contrary probably cost me some sales. But as a first draft of the writing process dialog is my go-to process for sketching in a conversation or conflict. Partly my early playwright training, of course. However, several friends of mine have found the technique useful - getting the rhythm of the verbal give and take worked out before addressing the blocking and business of the scene.

And, technically speaking, my first sale didn't open with dialog (though it did start with a talking head). The whole thing was a monologue. More specifically, the protagonist speaking his reminiscences into a recorder.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I start each of my novels differently. The best beginning to a novel that I read that held my attention was: "The heck of it was, it was a good day for flying." It was a story about a plane crash with a mistaken identity and someone assuming the identity of another. Very interesting story and gripping from beginning. But of all the novels I've read, this is the only one that I can remember the opening lines and I read that novel decades ago.

Liane Spicer said...

I'm something of a contrarian myself so I hear you, Kevin. And I've always had reservations about the "write what you know" rule.

Yolanda Gore said...

Enjoyed this! Thanks!