Friday, July 25, 2014

What Not to Do, as Important as What to Do

Janice Hardy is a genius. Instead of focusing her writing advice on what authors should be doing in order to write the next best seller or on what they should be doing before writing the next hit, she focuses on what a writer should not do...

Sounds easy, right? Wrong. Can't tell you just how often I've read about "what to do" and leave the page feeling as though, "yes, I'm doing that and still..." when all I really want to read is some straightforward advice on how not to lose a reader on page one and get him/her to keep reading. Not just the page, but the whole book and not just one book, but the whole series. Luckily, I stumbled upon her article:

hosted at Anne R. Allen's blog.

This is a very well-written and thought out piece in which Ms. Hardy uses the metaphor of hosting a party... creative and makes a great deal of sense.

So, what am I going to do with this article and might be worth it to my reader's? Well, I'm going to confront her advice head-on using the first 250 words of my current work in progress: a short story about Hephaestus's second wife, Aglaia, after his disastrous first marriage to Aphrodite that I'm working on for an anthology.

“I wanted the bride price returned, Zeus,” Hephaestus hissed at his father. “Not a new bride!” He paced the marble floor before the raised dais, stumbling every few steps on his club foot. Zeus reclined on his golden throne, a glint of amusement flashing in his storm blue eyes.

“She is a lovely girl. I am sure you will both be very happy.”

Hephaestus paused, midstride, and teetered for a moment before catching himself on his forge-fired crutch. Lifting his shoulders, he cocked his head and nodded. “I believe that was the same blessing you gave me last time.”

“Is it? Well, the sentiment is still genuine.” Zeus placed his hand over his heart and attempted to tame his wayward features into a semblance of solemnity.

Hephaestus grunted and turned away. How could his father ever understand? He had pledged his love and loyalty to Aphrodite and all he’d asked for in exchange was that she limit her trysts with mortals. But apparently, even that was too much to ask from the shameless whore. To find out from Helios, the titan of the sun, that she had been fooling around with Ares—his own brother!—and in their marriage bed of all places… well, that had just been too much. Closing his coal black eyes, he shifted his weight. Strands of his dark, coarse and wavy hair fell across his forehead. A weak smile lifted his dry and cracked lips as he remembered the moment of his triumph. Short-lived as it had been.

So, let's get started and see how I've done so far...

1. Having too much backstory and explanation.

Until the reader knows and cares about the characters, they don’t want to know the history of the world or the backstory of the protagonist.

They want to see a character with a problem and be drawn in by that story question.

Too much information can slow a story down and overwhelm a reader. If it’s too much work to read, they won’t read it.

My opinion: The final paragraph may need a rework. I am waffling between the belief that I have too much backstory in place there and just the perfect amount of backstory. I mean, I have to mention Aphrodite's affair in order to make sense of the first part of dialogue and I have to explain some of Hephaestus's obvious anger at his father. I am also not a huge fan of all the description I give regarding Hephaestus's appearance, but after being warned in the past that I tend to wait too long before specifying my main character's appearances, I upset readers with giving a description after they have already formed their own. I do think I set up a good problem... Ahh, decisions!

2. Crafting a one-dimensional scene.

Some opening scenes focus on one thing and one thing only: a beautiful description, an action sequence, retrospective navel-gazing, etc.

The text is working too hard to set the scene, so there's no story yet, nor is there a character with a goal and something to lose.

My opinion: Yeah, I don't think this issue is one I need to worry about. I have quite a bit going on up there in the opening lines and most of it is moving the story forward. Hephaestus has a goal: not to get married and yeah, he's got something to lose, well, already lost: Aphrodite's love. I'd say I do a pretty good job of not writing those icky one-dimensional scenes.

3. Using a fake opening

We’ve all read these bad boys: that prologue (or chapter one) that sets up a faux conflict to “hook” the reader, but then has very little connection to the following chapter. (A common "faux conflict" happens when authors use dreams and/or hallucinations at the beginning of a novel, one of my pet peeves...Anne.)

It’s a bait and switch, and no one likes to be tricked.

Often this includes a fast forward to an "exciting" scene later in the book. This isn't as effective as you'd think, because without the buildup to that scene, readers don’t understand why it matters—and they rarely care. If you lie to your readers, or trick them and change the book on them, there's a good chance you'll just piss them off.

My opinion: Uh, I may do this but it is definitely not necessarily on purpose. I like to use various points of view and a more fluid understanding of time in some of my short stories, especially the longer works and those written for anthologies. Heck, it is fun to play around with stuff sometimes. Anyway, in the above story, I do stop the action right there for a flashback scene of a highly erotic nature, then jump right back into the moment. Since I hint at the flashback with the final sentences of my opening, I don't know whether that will satisfy my readers or piss them off. Perhaps I need to take another look at the flow of my story.

4. Having a lazy protagonist

A lazy protagonist just sits around waiting for something to happen to her. She has nothing she wants, no goal in mind, she isn’t trying to accomplish anything—she’s just sitting around navel gazing or walking through a pretty setting. The job of a protagonist is to drive the plot, and if she’s not doing anything, the story goes nowhere.

My opinion: Once again, I'm good and I'm bad. With my practice in writing short stories I have to say I don't usually find myself in this position. I have places to be in my stories and I need to get there before I run out of steam. Lazy protagonists are not my friends. After reading the above, I am 90% sure I'm clear of this fault. Though, I might need to look into Hephaestus doing a bit more, but that goes back to #1 and #3... that final paragraph may end being my bane.

So, what do all my loyal readers think? Your input would be greatly appreciated.