Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Do this! No that! Wait, shouldn't you be writing with vermillion ink?

I saw a long Tweet recently with advice on the difference between action with tension.
The tweet stream bemoaned the emphasis on starting a novel with action; saying instead that starting with tension was better.

I think the writer made a good point.

And I can think of some very fine books that start with tension rather than action.

But I can also think of some very fine books that start with action; the reader is dropped into the novel without any clues at all.

Which led me to realize that it's important to differentiate between advice in general (the tweet stream) and advice in particular (someone with their eyes on your work).

I spend a lot of time talking to authors about what to fix in their manuscripts.  The guiding question is always "does this work?"

That's the ONLY criteria to use.

So, when you read good writing advice, pay attention.
But when you're deep into your manuscript, ask only "does it work?"

Readers don't have a checklist of rules writers must follow.
They want a good story, one that draws them in and keeps them reading.

Like this:
"The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house."
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Good storytelling is a mystical process.
There is no one right answer.
Not even here.


E.M. Goldsmith said...

I read that whole twitter thread and moaned. The only rule for writers is "there are NO rules". So says Jeff Somers. I believe him. Well, on writing. Not a lot else. Maybe on whiskey. But pants, no. Cats, uh - not at all. But on writing, yes. There are no rules. Move on, keep writing. Make it work.

And what works for one reader/editor/agent may not work for another. One reader/agent/editor may LOVE your work and your voice. Another might hate it. Write the way it works for you. <---- I am mostly talking to myself here to take the sting out of some the query rejections.

Morning Reef.

nightsmusic said...

Action, tension, horror, the perfect kiss, I don't know that there's a right answer except that the answer is, whatever makes your reader turn the page. Sometimes it's humor, sometimes it's a monster. I can't put my finger on it, but for me, it's whatever makes me want to find out what happens next. I've had two different editors look at my work. One said 'don't start with this, it's all telling'. The other said, 'this is wonderful, what happens after this?' Couple that kind of advice with a long list of bestsellers I don't like and I'm back to shaking my head. It's not a one size fits all thing and for me, I just have to write the best book I can regardless of what it starts with and hope someone loves it enough to pick it up.

Mister Furkles said...

For me, as a reader, a novel should start with suspense. Make me ask myself, "Why is this happening?" Or, perhaps, "What is this about?" So that includes action and includes tension.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" does not start with action or tension but the prose begs to read further. It's really about storytelling. If you are a master storyteller, you can start with the mundane and with prose that begs the reader to continue to discover what the story is about. After the second paragraph in TKaM comes suspense. Not earth shaking suspense but "How did he bust his arm and what is this adventure about?"

Timothy Lowe said...

Great post.

Jessica Faust had a great post at her Bookends blog last week about the difference between action and tension. Yes, she does qualify that a lot of books begin with a ton of action but not a lot of tension. But they're not mutually exclusive.


There needs to be every reason for a reader to keep reading that is available to the author and that is true to the particular book. It's not the spell kind of magic but the illusionist kind. What do you show? What do you keep hidden?

No formula for sure. When I'm trying to summon an opening I usually have to try eighteen or nineteen different openings before something sticks. Once I've got the opening, I can write the rest of the book.

Kitty said...

No matter how a story begins, I've got to care about those involved. I just quit reading the latest book from an author I have followed for years because the only character I cared about was a dog.

Timothy Lowe said...

Having trouble getting the hyperlink to work -- if you go to the Bookends blog, you'll see it.

Kitty said...

Timothy, the best line in that link you posted, concerning the opening, was this: It’s not a giant information dump.

Colin Smith said...


Link Tip: Blogger can be persnickity about links. Be sure to include "http://www." or "https://www." even if you don't usually need it.

KMK said...

I'm always wary of anyone who tries to impose a checklist on something visceral and intuitive. I'm not talking about the conventions that we all have to respect, like double-spaced 12-point Times New Roman or word count within acceptable limits. I'm talking about the people who tell aspiring writers they must do EXACTLY THIS to succeed. Our Queen is precisely right about storytelling as a mystical process. And there are always going to be people who don't like the way you do it. Query the next one, or figure the next one will love and buy the book.

Kate said...

My feeling has always been that these types of threads/blogs are in response to a pattern agents see in their inboxes.

These past few years: start in the action! has been such a common piece of advice, that I'm guessing agents are seeing a lot of stories that start in the middle of a firefight without grounding the reader in the MC first – which is equally as 'bad' as starting too slow and boring the reader (I've seen this pattern in a lot of my beta reads too).

So I always take these threads with a pinch of salt. They are fantastic for making you THINK about the decisions you've made in your writing, but like all writing advice, they're not gospel.

Timothy Lowe said...

I thought I did include that in the link.

Now I'm left wondering why blogger likes Colin better.

Just kidding. Colin is way more endearing ;)

Colin Smith said...

Awww... thanks, Tim! It's possible you left out the "www." part of the URL. It's so 2000s to say "www." when giving a URL--my kids laugh at me whenever I do it. Blogger must be a Gen-Xer too... ;)

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

I read that dongwon twitter thread and I liked it. I find writer advice drip fed by literary agents via twitter very appealing.

But the writer advice that I like is from Margaret Atwood which I think dovetails with what Janet is saying here.

Hold my attention.

So, whether by tension, or action, or shocking one liners or gorgeous paragraphs that give neither tension nor action, as long as you hold the readers' attention and seduce them into reading the next page, you're golden.

Brenda said...

Once upon a time an agent known as Shark found a severed manuscript in her hatbox.

Craig F said...

I am a fan of tension to start. It is just a personal thing, but I think you can give a glimpse of plot better with tension.

If you chuck in some action and then on page two go into descriptive stuff for a couple of chapters it leaves the reader wanting. Sometimes it is even a let-down.

Sometimes that action is better left for backstory. If it happened a while before the story it can be a prologue (I know).

A big action is more often a good spot of climax for separate parts of the plot. Action at the beginning often seems to be forgotten later.

Casual-T said...

In the profound words of that fanciful fist swinger, that lightning speed sidestepper, that eloquent part-time word wrangler, Muhammad Ali, it’s “Different strokes for different folks.”

If there were indeed “one rule to rule them all,” we’d have a fairly boring and uniform literary landscape, with stories starting, progressing, and ending in goose-stepping unison. The real question hiding in the bushes might be, whether one writes what one finds appealing, interesting, and/or entertaining, perhaps hoping that others might experience one’s words the same way (and could possibly be convinced to part with a few shekels, so the author may acquire a much needed new quill), or whether the main goal of one’s efforts is to maximize commercial success based on pre-chewed bits of information.

I come from the world of music, and the same applies there. Popular songs, those aimed at pleasing the masses, are increasingly (and have been for decades) based on a precise formula, geared toward selling, rather than artistic expression. When comparing popular music from yesteryear to today’s crowd-pleasers, it is clear that the vast majority of contemporary chart-toppers follow “the rules,” so as to maximize commercial profitability. Many songs (and bands) we now consider classics, would not even get to the starting line in 2020.

PS: Jeff Somer’s “Writing Without Rules” is an absolute zinger!

Beth Carpenter said...

I recently learned something from a bad book. The premise was intriguing: I wanted to find out why the husband didn't come home. Then the story got repetitive and annoying but I waded on, because I had to find out. The reason turned out to be lame, but the lesson was that I kept reading because there was an unanswered question I cared about.

Theresa said...

A severed manuscript in a hat box--I'd have to keep reading!

Katja said...

Hey, Craig, what great wisdom! I find your comment SO very useful, I just had to tell you. :D

Emma said...

Is it time for a first sentence roundup from the Reiders? I wouldn't mind seeing what everyone has going on.

Katja said...

Yes, Emma. I wouldn't mind either.