Monday, November 28, 2011

What not to write

By Pamela

Stacy and Clinton of WNTW
I once was a big fan of the television show What Not to Wear, where people and a hearty sampling of their pitiful wardrobes are whisked away to NYC for a complete overhaul by Stacy and Clinton. I found it hard not to cringe, though, when those featured were criticized--at times mercilessly--for simply expressing their individuality through their fashion choices. In the end, I suppose, maybe their egos recovered when they got to take home a brand new wardrobe of the 'right' clothes.
I absorbed fashion advice in my formative years:

And yet today, I wear whatever I want, whenever I want. As I'm typing this, I have on a plaid shirt and a plaid scarf--not the same fabric or really the same colors but it works, I think. One of my favorite shirts has horizontal stripes, and I've been a redhead and worn orange and pink and red without a second thought. Plus I'll wear white any month of the year--as long as it's clean.

My point is: I know the 'rules' of fashion and yet I'm not shy about breaking them if I think I can pull it off.

Joan and I recently took a class in Austin, and I found it interesting, that as the instructor rattled off some 'rules,' she countered nearly every one with an exception: an author who didn't follow convention yet found success anyway. I realized that ever since I started pursuing writing as a career, I'd read and heard a lot of advice about What Not to Write.

  • Don't write more than 100,000 words for your first novel.
  • Don't follow the latest trend--vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc.
  • Don't start a book with a reference to the weather.
  • Don't 'head-hop' or have one scene with multiple POVs or have too many POVs in one story.
  • Don't start or end a book with dialog.
  • Don't tell an agent that you're writing a trilogy unless you've already sold the first one. 

So, if every author followed The Ever-expanding Rules of Writing, Kathryn Stockett's first novel, The Help, which is over 150,000 words, would likely have been a much different--less compelling and shorter--story.

Many folks have hitched their keyboard to the paranormal wagon and found new ways to spin a good ol' vampire tale and done quite well. 

As far as books starting with the weather, read the opening lines of The English Patient or The Memory Keeper's Daughter

I'm pretty sure he never 'head-hopped' but Carl Hiassen's Skinny Dip had so many POVs, I lost track. And loved the book so much, I've read it twice.

I've also heard, "Don't write a book as though it's a journal or a diary." What about The Color Purple? And that "People don't read/like/want prologues or epilogues." Really? I didn't hear anyone complaining much about The Time Traveler's Wife or The Dive from Clausen's Pier.

Someone also advised me to not write in the present tense. As in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? And two other books I loved: Open, Andre Agassi's autobiography and Elizabeth Berg's Until the Real Thing Comes Along.

So, my advice to anyone who writes is this: Study the craft, learn the rules and then write what moves you. It's fine to wear white in winter while you write your vampire novel in multiple POVs in present tense with the opening scene taking place in a violent snowstorm.

Just do it well--wear it with confidence--and I'm sure you can pull it off.


  1. Having never been to Book Writing School (thank God) I break these rules all the time. My new novel begins very blatantly with weather...

    "In unique conditions, combinations of temperature and humidity are known to create precipitation indoors. Aqueous vapor and cold pockets of air collude within interior domes and vaulted peaks in such manners as to freeze and crystalize. Snow has been recorded falling from the ceilings of cathedrals, ballrooms, and barns.

    This nugget of knowledge glitters forth nearly word for word – fantastic enough to have survived a schoolboy’s memory over thirty years. As the driver maneuvers the heavy sedan through the weather he can imagine moisture rising to high drafts, molecules coalescing to fuse into crystals that then fuse into flakes to drift past gaslight chandeliers to melt in ponds of champagne, to bead the eyelashes of waltzing couples abandoning their steps in half-turn, unaware the snow is composed of their own exhalations of breath and sighs. Their own sweat transformed and returned to them as pricks of white surprise on bare shoulders, on carefully pomaded cowlicks..."

  2. Love it! And thank you... I'm in the midst of writing my first book and am often overwhelmed with I come across websites and articles about such rules. Sometimes, I want to scrap my whole manuscript but I'm hoping a professional editor will help with all those details.

  3. Pardon the typo above... that should read, I'm overwhelmed *when* I come across...

  4. Thanks for the opening snippet of your novel, Sarah. The way you string words together ... *sigh* I'm pretty sure you could start a novel with a scene about doing the laundry and it would read like poetry!

    And, yes, My2Cents, the amount of information available to writers can be both boon and bane. I hope you have a critique group. They can be the greatest help ever!


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