Saturday, October 18, 2008

Back! And On How to Write Real Good

So a combination moving/writing/Jewish Holidays/family emergencies have kept me away, but not for long! Time to answer some old and undoubtedly outdated emails!

I'm a "wannabe" working on his first novel (sci-fi if that matters).

To the point - is it all right/common to start a story with someone other than the main character?

My story starts with a woman (prostitute actually) just learning she's pregnant (doesn't know who the father is yet). Bottom line - the baby is the main character. The pregnancy won't just be backstory. The mother will learn who the father is and go on the run. My original idea was to have her attacked just before the baby is born (mugging). She dies, but the baby is saved and adopted by childless couple who [obviously] have no clue the baggage that will come with this baby.

One member of my critique group says you should always start a story with the main character and that my proposed first chapter should be skipped or a prologue.

The other dilema is that another member of the group suggested that by the end of the first chapter readers will have an investment in the woman and killing her would be a mistake.

Your thoughts would be appreciated.

There is no "right" way to write a novel, though there are plenty of wrong ways. As writers, we all have to learn an important lesson: When you are a writer, people will give you blanket advice about writing and insist you take it as gospel. It will take a long time to figure out their advice was really dumb. I will now proceed to give you blanket advice:

There is nothing wrong with any way you want to write a novel as long as you do it well.

Yes, there are some things to stay away from - bad grammar, bad spelling, plot inconsistencies, having the whole thing be one long run-on sentence, and using multiple 1st-person POVs. That said, there's undoubtedly at least one award-winning example out there of a novel that broke one of those rules. On the other hand, you are probably not going to write one of those rare award-winning novels that break all the rules. Stick to them.

I've read plenty of novels - most of them suspense or mystery - where the character introduced in the first chapter was either a side character, a character who was about to meet the main character, or whom didn't survive to see chapter 2. It was never a problem, except in one case where I found it annoying. There was one urban fantasy author - I forget his name - who would introduce murder victims by spending an entire chapter on an intricate backstory for them, only to have them fairly randomly offed by the magical serial killer at the end of their segment. He would do it at least twice a novel and it was a whole series so by the end I was pretty sick of that little trick, but I knew other people liked it. Also I bought all of his books, so he "won" in that sense.

The people in your crit group are not authorities on writing. If they were, they would be busy rolling around in dollar bills from all the money they made writing that authoritative book on writing, not hanging around in a crit group. Take their advice with a grain of salt.


Angie Ledbetter said...

Nice and interesting info. Thanks for posting.

Steph said...

Yes, there are some things to stay away from - bad grammar, bad spelling, plot inconsistencies, having the whole thing be one long run-on sentence, and using multiple 1st-person POVs.

Not to sound rude or anything, but may I ask why on the bolded one? I know it usually becomes a topic of debate in writing forums (right up there with using prologues) but I'd love to hear an explanation coming from you, both a writer and an industry insider. The first ones you listed are basic common sense, but having read this year along a bunch of books with multiple 1st person POVs (mostly YA), it'd be interesting to see why this is in your list of no-nos. :)


The Rejecter said...


True, I guess there's an argument in favor of multiple POVs, but I've just seen too many disasters with them to like them, so it came to mind when I was writing the post.

Anonymous said...

Also wanting to ask about the multiple first-person POVs -- what was it about it you thought was a disaster? Can you pin it down or is it just a general dislike? For instance, I've divided my book into four blocks each with a different POV and labeled them with the POV, so any problems people might have with a) it switching over too often and getting a mental whiplash and b) getting deep into the story and then being jolted out of it by an unknown POV and having to figure out whose head we're in now are negated.

I've seen this issue brought up in a few other places before without much elaboration, so I was hoping that you might be able to shed some light on it. While I know that anything goes as long as you do it well (and not just because you just said so *g*), I also don't want to alienate a lot of my readers upfront. (Not that I'd be particularly happy about having to rewrite my entire book, but alas...)

green_knight said...

I think 'don't follow prescriptive advice' is never wrong. There are things that are usually done badly, and things that work only when done especially well, but even second person can work in a novel when done by a master.

That said, it's probably safer to stick to readers' comfort zones. To your letter writer, I would say that the problem with the scene as described is that it very much feels like a prologue - whatever you call it - and those are usually a problem because they have nothing to do with the story. The story doesn't start with the conception of the protag. It doesn't start with their birth, adoption, or the first couple of signs that Something Might Be Wrong. It starts when the protag meets their enemy for the first time, or when something really important happens.

Remember that *every* character has a backstory. Readers - particularly SF readers - are quite happy to jump into the middle and see it revealed later, if at all.

Liza said...

Thank you for the information. It was well worth the read.

Anonymous said...

Starting off with a side character is a fairly common technique in television and while I confess that many methods of engagement for that medium do not translate to prose, often storytelling is storytelling.

The real question becomes how compelling is the opening of the book to read, how long is it in comparison to the remaining bulk of the novel and does the death of this character motivate the plot?

Ebony McKenna. said...

My two cents (worth even less now because the Australian dollar is tanking).
As a reader, I would feel mightily ripped off getting to know a character, only to have them die at the end of the first chapter.
I'd feel like I'd wasted my time getting to know them and getting into their head.
Here's the problem. If you write it really well, the character will come to life and the reader will love her. Then you kill her and we're grieving.
If you write it badly, we won't care about the character and it will be a waste of a chapter.

Are there no other turning points in the main character's life where the book can start? You can always seed the backstory and mother's murder as you go along?

Good luck.

none said...

Readers will have an investment in the mother--provided she's written well enough to engage them--and her death could pose a problem if there isn't another character in whom readers are also/already invested to take up the story. What you want to avoid is readers putting the book down because, once that particular character is dead, they see no reason to continue.

It's often the case that critiquers can identify a problem correctly, but can't offer a solution that suits your needs. Here, they have put their finger on a real issue, but aren't working with you to solve it in a way that enables you to write the novel you want to write. This is a common problem, so get used to it :).

My suggestion would be to take that particular issue on board as a problem you need to solve, and look at ways of solving it within the context of what you want to write. If you start writing someone else's novel instead of your own, it'll show.

none said...

(Examples of multiple first person POV done really badly include "Time Traveller's Wife" and "The Historian". It is however done well in Sarah Waters' "Affinity".)

The Rejection Queen said...

It's funny you should say this because many months ago I let a fellow writer/friend read the first chapter of my manuscript and he told me my sentences should be longer. So I tried my hardest to write longer sentences and just recently a receieved a note from an agent saying I have "Awkward Sentence constructions." So it backfired on me. I never should have taken his advice.

Rob G said...

FWIW, the story is science fiction and the character in question does not die in the first chapter. She's assaulted at the end of the second chapter and dies at the beginning of the third.

The main character (introduced loosely in the first chapter) is her unborn child.

The loss of his birth mother (in an ironic twist, I hope) is one hardship he will endure.

Anonymous said...

Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock:

"Superman does GOOD, son. You do well."

writtenwyrdd said...

Rules are made to be broken, but don't do it badly. Thanks for an other excellent post!

Rob said...

Rejecter wrote:
"The people in your crit group are not authorities on writing. If they were, they would be busy rolling around in dollar bills from all the money they made writing that authoritative book on writing, not hanging around in a crit group."

In their defense, they have given me a lot of excellent feedback. Even if I don't take all of their advice, it is still good to listen and evaluate it. Then make my own decision. This point was just one consideration I didn't agree with.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if not many people here are regular readers of science fiction/fantasy, because it is COMMON in this genre to start a book with a martyred birth mother before moving to the protagonist's POV. The most immediate example that springs to mind is "Elvenbane," by Mercedes Lackey and the late Andre Norton, which was the beginning of a popular trilogy in the 90s. Give me some time to go through my collection of paperbacks and I could come back with more.

I really appreciate and agree with the Rejecter's advice -- there is no "right way" to write a novel -- but if the original email-writer is waffling over this choice, it shouldn't be because a member of his critique group thinks it's the wrong POV. He should probably be more worried about starting with a cliche.

(And one I always considered a little misogynistic, but that's another can of worms.)

Rejecter -- apologies if it looks like I tried to post multiple times! I was wrangling with Open ID.

writtenwyrdd said...

Following up on rob's comment on crit groups, I have to say that they can be extremely helpful in a good group with experienced writers and critiquers who give you literate reader's opinions and/or valuable writerly opinions and advice. Some group members are stronger in one than the other, generally.

Sometimes you get lucky with critiquers who will say your writing has problems and be able to define what they are as well as offer suggestions for fixes; but generally you can count yourself lucky to get rough bits pointed out. In the latter case, you get to scratch your head and figure out if these vague comments have any merit and then you must decide on an angle of attack in the revisions. That's a rough job sometimes all on your own, because good feedback can spawn good revisions and vague feedback tends to spawn (in my case, anyhow) more of the same self-indulgent unwillingness to see the error of my ways.

Those are the good and the mediocre writing crit groups.

If you are really unlucky, though, you find yourself in a group which is composed of only young-in-skill writers. There's a tendency in such groups (often high school or college students who like to write) to give overly adoring comments because they don't yet know how to critically read or to write well themselves. It's not that these folks aren't well meaning; they just haven't developed a particular skill set yet.

Critique groups aren't perfect, but they can be very helpful.

Anonymous said...

I am a little more concerned about the baby being the main character. How dynamic can a baby be? Surely he or she can't have much effect on the story until he or she is at least a little more than a baby? So there must be a time shift or something after this mugging and death. So, it seems to me, the story doesn't really start until substantially after the events of the first three chapters, which makes it sound a lot like a prologue. You can do it, if you think it works, but personally, I would shift it to later in the story.

Of course, if the baby stays a baby and is hunted, or whatever (I am assuming there must be something significant about this child) then I would argue that the baby is the main SUBJECT of the story, not the main character. Bit hard to tell, of course, in the limitations of the blog!

Either way, I would be tempted to just write on and not stress to much about it. Just finish the story. As you get further in, the right structure will probably become clear.