Author: not Ross PM
Yet another FictionPress writing guide, yes, we writers are annoying, aren't we? I will not, however, point out problems that 94.7% of all FP stories have and how to fix them. Instead, I will walk through the process from start to finish - hopefully eliminating those problems along the way. Update: a very good place to startRated: Fiction K+ - English - Chapters: 8 - Words: 10,024 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 1 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 10-20-12 - Published: 09-24-12 - id: 3060741
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Before I continue, I would like to point out that I don't feel like I've covered character, plot, and the relationships between then adequately. But I can't think of anything else I could say that's not redundant in some way. I also hold a belief that thinking too hard before you write is way too easy to do, and way too many people do it, causing the wreckage of way too many stories that might have amounted to something. Over-thinking is a bad idea. Which makes it rather ironic that I'm writing this at all. Anyway…
We're at the point in the process where I tell myself, "Finally! It's time to start writing!" Preparing is fine, but it sure isn't writing – this is a likely explanation for my aversion to outlining.
Too many people ruin their stories with the darn first chapter; first paragraph, even. First lines, paragraphs, and chapters are all so, so, so important, and I think that a lot of beginning writers are thoroughly oblivious to that fact. Since we're only talking about FictionPress here and how to get reviews, I'll stick to the importance of a good first fill-in-the-blank in this context. When I'm reading through the "just in" section and I click on a story with a good summary, I'm expecting to be drawn into the story. When I find something that is lazily written, clichéd, sappy, confusing, or anything else unpleasant, I just stop reading altogether, never to return. I have homework. I have house-cleaning. I have my own writing to do. I'm looking for something good to read, something that I can be entertained by and interested in. First impressions are everything, no matter what motivational speakers say, especially when it comes to literature. So this chapter is a list of things you don't want to do while writing your first fill-in-the-blank. (Once again, these are my opinions. I am willing to be proved wrong; not that I would be excited about the process of it.)
Good Morning, Starshine! No. Do not start your story with Sally Wonderful waking up in the morning and getting ready for school. Remember the paragraph like this I wrote in the previous chapter? Yeah. Not enjoyable. I don't think there's any way you can make a waking up scene interesting enough to qualify for a first scene – perhaps for any scene, actually. Like I said in the previous scene, there's no tension. Enough said.
Have Pity on Me, My Mommy Died. It's not just the parent dying thing, it's the whole angsty first scene that I'm not into. Readers are waiting to become friends with your character, and it's not very enticing to find someone sitting in his bedroom (which has black walls, of course) being emo, staring at pictures of his dead mother, and crying about how his girlfriend doesn't care about him and his dad beats him up every morning. I am aware that people really do have lives like that, and I am fully aware that it is very, very tragic. However, there's a certain amount of easing into a character that has to be done in literature. If some random girl from my English class came up to me before class started, weeping about how terrible her life is, it would not be appealing. I would just be freaked out, and I probably wouldn't feel sorry for her. Okay, maybe I'm cynical, maybe I'm so insensitive and you're just going to stop reading right now. However, it's probably not a good idea to assume that all your readers are caring, compassionate people – because there's a good chance that they're not. It's not worth the risk to alienate all the horrible people in the world who are just like me.
Here's an Account of the Past 20 Years. Or, "Info-Dumping." There's a saying in fiction that goes, "In late, out early," and it refers to scenes, chapters, novels, anything you like. It means that you want to begin a scene just as late as you possibly can without letting the reader miss out on any key information. Note the term "key." That is a very important term. Most writers, especially those who are just starting out, tend to forget that their readers actually have brains – and I promise, I'm not trying to be offensive. It's an easy thing to do. You have this whole world, be it real or fantastic, stored in your brain, and it's really, really exciting, and you have to share every detail that you can think of! I know. I get it. However, people who read stories tend to be on the higher side of the IQ scale, and they can infer more than any of us give them credit for. A reader feels very patronized when you spell it all out for them in a step-by-step process. Okay, I'm joining the masses here, but… Twilight. I've not read it, but I've read the first couple of chapters. Judging just by the first couple of pages and Bella's ongoing description of her life and what she's wearing and boring whatevers made me feel like Stephanie Meyer thinks I'm stupid. I happen to hate that. She alienated me as a reader (well, that was one of the methods she used). More importantly, information in a story is given strictly on a need-to-know basis. Pretend you're working for the CIA, and you'll hopefully get a more interesting narrative. So what's need-to-know, and what's don't-need-to-know. I'll give you a hint: starting with something along the lines of, "I was born in 1992 and my sister was born in 1995. My dad, my sister and I used to play hide-and-seek all the time, and this is how it would work every time…" blahblahblahblahblah. Maybe you're writing a story about a college student, and family is really important to the plot. Fine. But I don't want to hear flashback narrative in the first paragraph. Start with action, and give details about her family as the need for them arises. It's more engaging for the reader that way. And, as Stephen King would say, "Without Constant Reader, you are just a voice quacking in the void." (Or something along those lines.)
Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who's the worst possible opening of them all? This one. This opening usually happens sometime within a larger "Goodmorning Starshine" opening, but it's so deadly that it deserves its own section. Let's be honest: this is just lazy writing. "I inspect my reflection in the mirror. My brown hair falls to my shoulders. My nose is big, but not too big, just big enough for anyone interesting to notice. My pink shirt compliments my new white jeans really well. I topped off my outfit with some black flats and a black and white scarf that my mom gave me last Christmas…" blahblahblahblahblah. I would like to take a venture that I'm mainly talking to the female percentage of the writing world here. Females tend to judge each other on stuff like that, but just because you judge that girl in Forever 21 by her looks doesn't mean that you can do that with a character. (Note: I am female, this is not sexist. Put the tomatoes down.) A glance across the clearance section takes half a second; a description takes multiple seconds – it almost becomes awkward. Besides, don't we usually call the girls who judge based on looks shallow and air-headed? I do. So why would we expect our readers to want to do the same thing? Fiction is different from real life. If the character's appearance is that important to you, work small bits of description into the narrative. "Zoe felt out of place in the violin section because everyone else was Asian, while she was stuck with this dang blonde hair." Something like that. Info-dumping, especially in character description, is lazy, lazy writing.
Dear Diary. It's embarrassing to admit how often I used this tactic when I was about ten and thought it was so cool to let my character have a journal. It's even more embarrassing to see how many stories on FictionPress start out this way. This is definitely more of a pet peeve than a legitimate no-no, but I'm mentioning it anyway. It's just annoying. It falls into the camp of, "My life is so terrible, pity me," which I already mentioned. It's abrupt. It's jarring. It's not a good way to ease a reader into a character. Besides, it produces no tension, no action, and it becomes way too easy to fall into the info-dump trap when you have a journal and all the time in the world to fill it. One of the worst offenses in this category is, "Wow! New diary! I'd better describe myself!" Enough said.
Can I be Friends with Plato? This mostly happens in sci-fi and fantasy stories, supernatural sometimes, too. People spend the entire first chapter, or first section of the first chapter, philosophizing about some abstract concept that will eventually connect to the story. The problem is that the reader has absolutely no clue what your story is about, and they have nothing to tie these random thoughts to. While your philosophy may be interesting, if we can't connect it to something that we feel – aka, your character, your story – we're just going to leave because we don't care at all. Additionally, it makes it seem like you, the writer, think you're so cool that you can throw all your ideas at us out of the blue. Problem is, you can look pretty silly by doing so. Because what if your ideas don't make sense? What if there's a factual error? A reader will forgive a factual error if it's in the course of the narrative and it's cushioned with characters and situations that they like. But if it's right at the beginning when the author is trying to sound cool, it's the best way to get laughed right off the website. I'm pretty sure that I have straight-up stopped reading any story that starts this way.
Sweet Dreams. This is another one of those "not a good way to ease the reader into the character" things that I keep talking about. Dreams are very weird things. I don't understand anything that I dream. And you know what one of the most boring things is? Sitting at school at lunch and having one of my friends go on and on about this "cool dream" they had last night. And that's a friend. Can you imagine if some random person came up to you in Safeway and started telling you about this "cool dream" they had? It would be very, um, not cool. It would be creepy. Same thing with novels. Dreams are connected to very deep-seated levels of the subconscious (it's sure not the conscious part, because I don't think I often sit in Humanities thinking about solving mysteries with Peter Pan), and in literature, they are often used to symbolize something that's going on in a character's mind – usually, a change. That's… just not something you want to get into right off the bat. I try to avoid dreams altogether, but that's a thing that's up to you. Just please, not the first chapter.
Prologue. This is a problem. There are two things that happen with prologues. They either become narrated info-dumps, or they really serve the same purpose as chapter one, but the author just wants to sound cool. In the first situation, the prologue takes place a significant time before your real story starts – months, years, probably not days. It usually happens to one or more persons who never physically show up in your story again. It usually acts as the explanation of how a certain thing (club, organization, feud, etc.) started. And when I'm done reading, I say, "And…?" Because think about it. Maybe your explanation of why the Capulets and the Montagues are feuding is really interesting, but is it totally necessary for the story? In Romeo and Juliet, it's definitely not necessary for the story. Romeo and Juliet don't go off on a steamy adventure to fix the problem between their families so that they can get married. They just ignore it and try to hook up anyway. Thus, any explanation of why the Capulets and Motagues are fighting is misleading, superfluous, and generally cumbersome and annoying. That's probably why Romeo and Juliet doesn't have a prologue. The second situation is just… pointless. Having a prologue doesn't automatically make your story, um, wonderful. If it's the beginning of the story, it's a first chapter. If it's not, question if it's really necessary.
So these are some things not to do, or at least things that are automatic deal-breakers for me. Next chapter, I'll give a few pointers on things that are good to do – you know, since this isn't supposed to be a "things that peeve me" essay.
(Author's note: thanks to my new followers! Like I said, next time is going to be some pointers on tightening up an opening. I hope you're finding this essay helpful thus far! ~not Ross)