Michille: Write Your Novel In A Year, Part 3

write_your_novel_week_40_3_rulesHere is another update on the Write Your Novel In A Year series from Writers Write. We’re up to week 41 but I’m going to focus on Week 40: 3 Rules You Can Break to Start Your Story. I like rules and generally follow them. I think most writers have their own particular hard and fast ones, and play loose on other ones. Jenny Crusie is anti-prologue, Nora Roberts head hops, and Linda Howard writes big sections of straight narrative. And I like their stories. The three the blogger offers are never start your novel with a prologue, never start your novel with a description of the weather, and never start your novel with your main character alone in bed.

Prologues. Jenny Crusie was fanatically against prologues. I don’t mind them if they’re needed. I’ve read some that are and some that aren’t – or more likely, can be attributed to a lazy author who would just put it up front rather than parse out the information throughout the story as needed. In Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase starts with a prologue chronicling Dane’s childhood and a few key moments in his formation. I felt that it was a good use of prologue. I don’t like the ones that flash forward to the end of the story. Sometimes, I’ll write a prologue, knowing that it will come out later but I need to get the backstory written down so that I can then take the important bits and insert them as needed for the reader to understand my character’s motivation.

Description of the weather. It was a dark and stormy night. According to Wikipedia, Writer’s Digest described this sentence as “the literary posterchild for bad story starters” and the American Book Review ranked it as #22 on its “Best first lines from novels list.” Hmmm. I definitely like stories to start with conflict so I can go along with this one, but if weather is a key component/influence on the opening scene, a bit about what that weather is could be important.

Alone in bed. If the character wakes up alone in bed, there aren’t very many avenues for conflict. However, the first scene sets up the characters world and then whammo – it is turned upside down. I can’t think of a story that starts with waking along in bed, then the world changes, but I can imagine how that might be done.

The “pin it, quote it, believe it” at the end of this post is “Beware of advice – even this!” from Carl Sandburg. I think that applies very well to this advice. Usually prologues aren’t necessary, weather shouldn’t be the first thing, and characters shouldn’t be alone (the sittin’/drivin’ and thinkin’ opener) but sometimes it can work. Doesn’t Jenny have one that starts with a character driving and there is a collision that starts the ball rolling?

What rules are hard and fast to you and which do you break all the time?

7 thoughts on “Michille: Write Your Novel In A Year, Part 3

  1. I’ve actually been trying to give myself permission to write whatever crap crosses my mind when I’m working on a first draft, without paying attention to any rules. It’s really difficult to do, because the computer programmer in me hates the inefficiency of writing stuff I know I’m going to throw away. I keep trying to convince myself that the creative process for fiction writing is very different than the creative process for writing code.

    • I don’t write code, but I imagine it is quite a different process. Sometimes, when I’m just letting my mind wander and get words on the page, it takes my story in a slightly different directions that is better than where I thought it was going. And yes, then I have to cut a lot of junk, but it can be worth it. Give yourself permission.

  2. I follow a lot of rules, and sometimes they really do help — one of the most helpful was making sure there’s a conflict right from the beginning. But I would break almost any rule if I felt breaking it made my point come alive better. I can’t think of a rule I wouldn’t like to break (-:.

    I think your link has the real problem encapsulated in the words, “I’ll concede that it’s probably a lazy way to start a book.” Sometimes we break rules because of laziness, and that hardly ever ends well. But when we break rules and it’s a real struggle and effort . . . well, we might be onto something good.

    • You make a good point, Michaeline. If you break the rule thoughtfully and with effort, you can get good results, but taking the lazy route rarely ends up that way. I recently read JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You. It is mostly first person in Lou’s head, but there are 4 times that she goes into other heads for one short commentary/scene. Writing in first person has a unique set of challenges with trying to get the other characters thoughts/feelings on the page when you can’t get in their heads. There is an old Jennifer Blake story, Royal Seducation (originally published in 1983 so it has the old-style rape/seduction bit in it) that is third person, single POV. Blake is masterful at showing the reader how the other characters are feeling while staying only in Angeline’s head. So in Moyes’ case, it felt a little lazy to me.

  3. I think never starting with the weather was one of Elmore Leonard’s personal rules, too. That one always made sense to me. Although I’ve always loved “It was a dark and stormy night,” I think by now for a story opener it’s so overused that it can only be a joke.

    • Snoopy uses “It was a dark and stormy night,” so you might be right on the overuse (haha). But something like the sleet pinging on the windshield/torrents of rain/blinding snow caused some escalation in the conflict that was about to turn the protagaonist’s world upside down. You get the weather in on the first line, but it is more about the conflict that is about to wreak havoc.

    • I love that line, too. I think Snoopy was the one who convinced me that it was THE perfect opening to the perfect novel. (Snoopy was a childhood hero, so it was inconceivable to me at that time that his novel would go unfinished forever. I was sure it was going to be brilliant!)

      I think it gives the reader good warning, and sets the stage for chills and thrills (cold rain and heated lightning). (-: And I love a dark and stormy night, much like tonight, where I can dive under the covers with a good book.

      Whatshisname, Bulwer-Lytton I think, did tend to go on a bit long. I believe he extended the pathetic fallacy a full paragraph with whistling wind and rattling drainpipes. But perhaps because he did the long and boring description, we don’t have to . . . we can just start with The Dark and Stormy Night. What follows must be fabulous, though, or we risk getting laughed down by a hundred million Snoopy fans.

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