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 Time to answer some old and undoubtedly outdated emails!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.