“Advice” Does Not Equal “Rules”
by Dev Jarrett
Novice writers, like all artists, are often given stupid advice. “You want to sell books, then...” “...write what you know.” “...you need a strong hook at the beginning.” “...give your readers a character with whom they can identify.” There are at least a hundred others, and most of them come from respected sources. You can find lists of them everywhere, and all those lists claim to be definitive.
“Write what you know.” We hear this most often, right? And yes, to a degree, we all do it. How many Stephen King stories are about writers? Too damned many, but that’s what he knows. My first two novels? Set in small towns in Georgia. That’s where I’m from. Casualties has a main character who is a soldier. In my day job, I’m a soldier. So superficially, yes, we all write what we know.
But do we? Really? And I’m not talking about the standard “I don’t know ghosts and monsters, so I’m not writing what I know.”
It’s deeper than that. The very nature of fiction is that it’s made up. We don’t know any of it until it happens in the story, and that’s true for even the most assiduous outliner—it’s Schrodinger’s cat, but with story growth. It’s not just the two possibilities of alive and dead, but an infinitely larger set of potentialities. Simultaneously, this happens, and this happens, and this happens, and this happens, etc., etc., infinity. It’s not until the writer actually writes what happens next in the story that all those other possible outcomes collapse. So in a narrative sense, writers are creating new realities from nothing except our own varied experience. We’re building the airplane while it’s in the air. We’re making up new things for others to “know.”
“You need a strong hook at the beginning.” I know we’re in the 21st century, and attention spans are getting shorter and shorter all the time because there is simply so much to see, and everyone with an internet connection can find just about anything they can think of. But do you really need an opening chapter that resembles nothing so much as an opening scene from some Jerry Bruckheimer police procedural TV show? It’s interesting seeing how many writers have grown (or shrunk?) in that direction, just based on what the public wants.
If you compare the first chapter of Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara with any the opening chapters of his work in the last five years, they’re completely different in style and pace. Some might even go so far as to say that Sword wouldn’t sell today. I disagree, simply based on the beauty of the writing. Similarly, the opening chapters of Justin Cronin’s The Passage were a poignant and heart-wrenching introduction to the main character. No explosions. No dead bodies. No play-on-words douchebaggery by emotionally wooden cops wearing shades. Just good writing. There are others, where the story and the writing is simply fantastic from the start. Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is one. The real terror doesn’t really take hold of the reader until the reader is already deeply emotionally invested in the Creed family, and then the bottom falls out.
“Give your readers a character with whom they can identify.” Again, the safe, fall-back criticism of that one is similar to the first reaction to Write what you know. “How can anyone identify with a bounty hunter of cyborgs, or a sentient zombie who’s a forensics specialist?” That’s a question that can best be addressed with how well an author can suspend disbelief. The two authors referenced above, Philip K. Dick and Nikki Hopeman, do it very well. They establish those points of commonality between us and their characters, and build out from there.
We can take that truism deeper, too. Some main characters are just unlikeable assholes. I’m sure there are many examples of this, but the first one to come to my mind is Atlanta Burns, from the Chuck Wendig novel of the same name. I recently read the book because I like Miriam Black, one of Wendig’s other characters. I was a little disappointed because Atlanta Burns—even though she’s a defender of those who are bullied—is not likeable at all. Maybe that’s simply a function of my perspective, but in my opinion, she’s as bad as the villains in the book, only different.
So, yeah. Whether it’s writing, filmmaking, or sculpting with instant mashed potatoes: create bravely, and create honestly, and if you don’t follow all the advice you get, it’s really okay. Artists break the rules every day. And any advice you ever get about writing, including this rambling blog of mine, take with a grain of salt.