Posts Tagged ‘advice’

Beginning Problems: The Mirror

Another common issue found in the beginning of a lot of early drafts and first novels is the mirror. Generally, this is combined with the dream sequence, where the main character wakes up from their dream, stumbles into the bathroom for mundane showering/teeth brushing, and then stares into the mirror, where we get a full, detailed description of their eyes, their hair, whatever other visual quirks, such as freckles, that the author has decided exist.

There are a ton of problems with this. The first of which is that it’s plain weird. I don’t know about you guys, but the last thing I think in the morning after I stumble into the bathroom is how sparkling my green eyes are, and how luscious my wavy blonde hair is, and man, aren’t my long lashes just the best?

(This is true even if the mirror is not related to a dream sequence. I see the “wander down the street and look at one’s reflection in the windows” variation a lot as well, and it still is weird.)

Second of all, it breaks up the story flow. Ideally, a short starts with something happening, even if it’s as simple as fighting with a sibling or being late for school. When you stop and spend a paragraph (or more) on appearance, the story loses its forward momentum.

Third, by dwelling on the main character’s appearance, it’s like the writer is saying, “I don’t know how to properly show characterization, or I think that somehow my character’s appearance is their characterization, and it’s important that I tell you all this now or you won’t care enough to keep reading.”

No reader cares about a character because they’re pretty/plain/brunette/a special snowflake. Readers care about a character because they’ve got a relate-able personality, a problem that’s interesting, something intriguing that pulls a reader along. Frankly, a character’s appearance is the least important aspect of their characterization in most cases (exceptions exist to every rule of course–the only black kid in the neighborhood is an important distinction to note up front, for example) and there’s no reason to dwell on it up front or in such detail.

I’m not saying that appearance can’t be noted–it’s the infodump qualities of the mirror sequence that make it a problem. A line of description here, another there–spread out throughout the narrative, not disrupting flow or plot.

What do you think, Squiders? Disagree with me that the mirror is a problem? Have examples of stories where the author manages it without ruining their momentum?

Beginning Problems: The Dream Sequence

Beginnings are an interesting beast, and what I find fascinating is that so many writers start their first stories the same way, like there’s some instinctual drive to do so. Like we were all taught to do so, even though most of the time they are a terrible, terrible mistake.

Let’s take the dream sequence. Dream sequences, in and of themselves, are not bad. Done right, they can convey information, tension, foreshadowing, etc. Some people can even pull off starting a novel or short story with a dream sequence.

However, most people can’t, and the problem isn’t even necessarily the dream sequence, but how it ties in with the rest of the story.

See, the typical dream sequence beginning goes something like this: Main character has a dream, where they either remember something that has recently happened that is interesting, or they has some sort of cryptic dream that hints interesting things are to come.

Main character then wakes up, goes to the bathroom (generally takes a shower, though brushing teeth is common as well), and any conflict or tension that was built up during the dream is immediately lost. The story doesn’t try to build off of it, and so everything just collapses into boring mediocrity.

There’s a bigger issue with the remembering something that has just happened kind. Why not start with that event? Why tell about it after the fact instead of showing it in action, especially if it’s something major, something that rocks the character’s world, something that starts the main plot?

But sometimes it doesn’t do any of those things–it’s just a one-off, something to hook people in right at the beginning, that doesn’t actually have anything to do with the main plot or the goals of the main character. That’s got a whole heap of other problems tied to it.

Beginnings are hard–they have to hook the reader, set up your MC and his/her world, and be relevant to your plot and your MC’s character arc. Getting that balance just right is a skill that generally takes a lot of cultivating.

If you’re starting with a dream sequence, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What am I hoping to show about my plot/character with this sequence?
  • Could this information be better conveyed in another way?
  • Does the content of this dream sequence directly tie in to and influence the main plot of my story?
  • Am I managing to keep the tension up once my character wakes up?

What do you think, Squiders? Do you have any examples of a starting dream sequence done right? Have you run into this issue in your own writing (or even professional writing) in the past?

Learning to Write

Over lunch this past weekend, my stepmother mentioned to me that she’d been talking to someone in college who had decided he wanted to be a writer and wanted some advice on becoming one.

Well, there’s really only one way to become a writer. You have to write.

You can read writing books, take creative writing courses, and plan out stories all you want, but until you sit down and start writing on a regular basis, it’ll never happen.

You may understand, on some level, how putting together a story works, but until you try it yourself, you won’t get it. And sure, some of the stuff at the beginning will probably be terrible. You may look back in five years and want to burn everything.

As Stephen King said, it takes a million words of crap before you get any good at it.

So, if you want to be a writer, just start writing. You don’t need an English or a creative writing degree. (Some people even say that you shouldn’t get a creative writing degree if you want to write fiction, but your mileage may vary. I have two engineering degrees so I have no opinion on the matter.) You don’t need to read every writing book known to man (of which there are more than you can read in one life-time anyway) – and you shouldn’t, anyway, since they don’t work for everyone. You don’t need to deconstruct your favorite novels to see what makes them tick.

What you need to do is be able to sit down and complete a story, start to finish, without getting bogged down by details and frustrations that can be fixed in rewrites.

If you want to be a writer, write.

End of story.