Recently I have noticed a profusion of articles and blog posts by people involved in the publishing industry with titles such as ’10 Ways Not to Begin your Novel’. The suggestions of ‘things to avoid’ include having your protagonist waking up from a dream, prologues, going back in time and many others. The reason they give is that these types of openings are overused and are therefore sure to get your book rejected by publishers.
Personally, I think this reasoning is crazy. Just because a particular approach has been used previously doesn’t necessarily mean it has been done in the same way. Similarly, because the opening to a book is of a certain type, it doesn’t follow that the book will have anything else in common with other books that have used the same type of opener. Of course, to justify their reasoning they often cite that it will put readers off. Really? Are readers concerned over whether or not a book has a prologue, or has the current dislike for prologues got more to do with publishing fads?
When I wrote my debut novel I opened it with my protagonist waking up from a dream. I had been reading books for 40 years prior to publishing Slur and I can honestly say that I cannot recall another book that opened in this way. It may be that I have read one years ago and retained it in my subconscious, but it isn’t as though every other book I read begins with a dream. Certainly dreams have been used to effect in novels, but does this mean that we should put a ban on the use of dreams in case they become overused?
This brings me to the bigger picture: if the publishing industry insists that we avoid openings that they consider are overused, then why restrict this ruling just to openers? Why not put a ban on jaded cops? Flawed heroes? Middle class chic lit full of dating and/or career dilemmas? Romance novels where boy meets girl but fate conspires to keep them apart for most of the novel until they finally end up together? Or, before this latest trend gets too clichéd, why not put a ban on the female cop who thinks she tougher than all the guys, but has a vulnerable side known only to the reader?
The important point I’m trying to make in all of this is that what’s more important than the type of scenario you create is how well it’s executed.
Another ‘rule’ that drives me to distraction is that it’s now become unpopular to replace the word ‘said’ with alternatives. Although we were encouraged to come up with more creative alternatives at school many decades ago (in my case anyway), those alternatives have now become anathema in certain quarters. I can understand how the overuse of alternatives can become jarring, but there are instances where certain words are more expressive than the word ‘said’ and they can convey the mood of the person speaking.
The ‘point of view rule’ is another example that came to my attention recently through a book that I read. This is a rule that most writers follow, and I try not to break this one myself because it can become confusing if an author switches point of view mid-scene. However, in ‘Child 44’ by Tom Rob Smith there are many instances in the book where the author switches POV from one paragraph to the next. Yet, this is a bestselling novel, which has received rave reviews in the popular press. I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision on the part of the author to take this approach, but I found that it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book and there were only one or two parts of the book where it caused confusion.
While there is a lot of good advice out there, which can improve your writing, sometimes I feel that there is too much. It is impossible to take it all on board especially as so much of the advice is conflicting anyway. Too much emphasis on ‘the writing rules’ can make your writing become stilted, so I think the best thing is just to enjoy your writing. Any howlers can be sifted out at the editing stage anyway and if there is any advice that doesn’t make sense to you, ignore it.
Rant over, for now, but if there are any writing rules that irritate you, please feel free to have a moan in the comments below. 🙂