A writer should always…

No, a writer should never…

A writer photoPhoto by Hannah Olinger, Unsplash

Writing advice for storytellers is… well… cheap and you can find it everywhere.
It’s usually harmless and occasionally even useful, but whenever I see a list you-shoulds, I bristle and have an overwhelming urge to annotate it.
Take for example:
* Always delete the first three chapters of your novel as they will be filled with backstory you don’t need.
Well, first of all, ANY piece of advice that begins with “Always” or “Never” is to be discarded immediately. And yes, I’m aware of the irony.
There is NO “one true way” to write a novel. Yes, you are likely to start your story before it really begins, especially when you are just beginning to practice the craft, but following this bit of advice blindly is simply going to land you in quicksand.
If you toss those three chapters with their ‘unnecessary’ backstory, you will likely be plunging your characters straight into the jaws of conflict – characters about whom your reader doesn’t know nearly enough to care about what happens to them.
When Michaelangelo was asked how he created his statues from a block of marble, the story goes, he said he started with the block and just chipped away everything that wasn’t the statue. But if the first thing you find as you’re chipping away at your own block of marble is a hand, don’t chop off the fingers because you haven’t figured out the rest of the arm yet. Take it easy. Let us get to *know* your story before you throw it snarling in our face.
No rule is absolute. Think how well James Michener’s  ‘and the Earth cooled’ beginnings –  worked for HIM and consider if he had followed that ‘toss the first three chapters’ advice.
Repeat after me – there IS no “Always”.
* Don’t preach.
Sounds pretty basic, but when you unpack it, it’s nonsense.
It’s true that if you find that you aren’t telling a story but are standing on a soapbox preaching a sermon, it’s time to walk away. But that is almost always a first-draft problem and easily dealt with in the first edit.
* Writing is a business. You enter into an agreement with a reader. You agree to entertain in exchange for their money and emotion.
No. PUBLISHING is a business. Writing is something else, something that is a difficult cross between an art and a craft.
Your only responsibility is to provide the best story that you are capable of producing. What you “owe” the reader is that, and only that. Readers who pick up the published version of your story are going to bring their own baggage, their own vision, their own interpretations into the thing – and you have absolutely no way of knowing (and therefore cannot be responsible for) what emotions your book arouses in them.
You cannot, CANNOT, write the perfect book for every reader.
* Readers don’t like charmless heroes. Just because your protagonist happens to be an anti-hero does not mean you are free to make him or her 100% unlikable.
Correct – to a point, But charm isn’t required, really. What is required is that you CARE ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS TO A PROTAGONIST. The most likeable character in the world is rendered irrelevant when the reader fails to connect with that character to the point of caring about their ultimate fate. If charm is the ultimate rule, what are we to make of the Thomas Covenant series? His charm quotient was as close to ultimate zero on the charm scale as it is possible to get – and yet he still managed to protag his way through a number of successful novels.
* Anti-heroes rarely work as a protagonist.
Nonsense. Hannibal Lecter, anyone…? Passion trumps rules. You’d be surprised where you can take a reader if you and your story (and your anti-hero protagonist) set their soul on fire.
* You have to read a lot to be able to write.
All right, I preach that myself. So sue me.
* Avoid long passages of description. Modern readers are too impatient.
Hm. Robert Jordan, anyone? Describing every step anyone in his books ever took, every meal they ever ate, every breath they ever drew? And yet somehow people still read. How about “Game of Thrones” with its thousands upon thousands of pages worth of description…?
I think the rule is, “don’t be boring”. That’s all that is required. You ARE allowed to write lush and detailed. Yes, you damned well ARE. Just know your limits, and stop before you get there, is all.

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