One wannabe author to another, I beg you to never give up your dreams. The common advice these days is to avoid dreams in your stories. I fear that editors and agents have read that advice and will now ignore stories that start with or contain dreams. I fear the next “Apocalypse Now” or “Where the Wild Things Are,” will be pushed aside and condemned to the reject pile. It is true that dreams handled poorly are horrid wastes of a reader’s time. Kind of like those long bits of poetry that really don’t move the story along or the science fiction lecture about how the engines work. There is a reason that there is no manual of style for writing. One hack’s rules for what to avoid may be what propels another to greatness. Well done, poetry, explanations and dreams are wonderful. Back to the subject of leaving out dreams. Without dreams, the story of Joseph becomes a really sad one and the Bible only has one book. The book of Daniel doesn’t really work either. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” falls apart at the title page. Without dreams, one of the greatest books of all time, The Zhuangzi, is left in shreds.
Most of the advice given by writers to writers is bunk. At best, the advice is bunch of misconceptions. At the worst, it is a load of self-serving lies. Or self deceiving lies. Writers are desperate for success and they are looking for the secret cure. Like alchemists they want the formula for turning lead into gold. In this search they may see truths and they may chase phantoms. When they turn and offer their secrets, beware. Often they will try and and espouse all sorts of things that are possibly good advice for some as absolute rules for all. Until you find someone who is actually changing writers in to successful authors, you can be sure that they don’t have the secret either.
There may not even be a universal secret. How do you pick the next lottery number? An artist with formulas can come up with a convoluted formula that would have predicted previous winning numbers. What they can’t do is increase their odds of winning the next one. The editors can’t really tell you what they are looking for. They have a few guidelines and guesses. Some have demonstrated a genius for guessing but that doesn’t really help the rest of us.The agents are crossing their fingers and hoping their latest discovery will make it big. The popular authors can’t really tell you their secret either. If the magic secret to writing could be easily extracted from popular works, it would have been.
There are tons of true stories of famous authors that got rejected repeatedly. There are tons of great books that got published and went nowhere. The experts who are spending their money to publish your books would love to know what they should publish next. The market remains unpredictable. The best current experts would love to meet an expert that could tell them the real secret. They need it desperately and they can’t find it.
Writers are in the worst position to view things clearly. Most of us think our books are bloody brilliant. We can’t say it out loud, but we would not have gone through the work if we didn’t know this to be true. If you start looking through the slush piles around you, it is pretty clear that most of these writers are not writing the most amazing book to have ever been written. Statistically speaking, your book is so-so at best. Worse than that, you know this and fear this. If everyone else thinks their stuff is great and most of it is banal, the chances are that you and I are just ruining paper whenever we print a copy. Then again a lot of books are controversial. Some of us want to pitch the book across the room before we finish the first chapter. Others can’t put the book down. The book I hate most might be your favorite. “A Separate Peace” is a pretty good and classic example of that.
Here is a sad fact. Vanity presses have a poor record of producing success and they have thrived since before you were born. Even in the mythical golden age of publishing, all but a few writers have had to pay to see their book in print.
The wannabe writers who push most of the advice out on the web clearly don’t have the magic answer. They are desperately thrashing around just like you and I are. They would be too busy choosing a yacht to have time to write their hack advice if they really knew the secret. They will give you wise advice about how not to start your book. If you follow all their advice about writing, then you will have to start your book with a bang. No walking and thinking, no dreams, no waking up and absolutely no details about the weather.
Your children’s book on meeting a Fairy has to start something like, “I slice three of the Gnomes open with a back swing and ready my sword for the next set to attack me.”
Your romance can start a bit gentler, “With an extra hard kick, I roll the body of my boyfriend into the hole I just made him dig. I just met someone special and I don’t want this clown in the way.”
Both of these beginnings are immediately interesting, so they may well be how to sell a book. That is until everyone starts doing it. Eventually, the limitation of putting action before character, time and place will end up being nothing more than a limitation. It precludes gentle tales and more nuanced writing.
Book authorities pronounce their certain truths and map off every single option. I will admit that a phrase like, “I woke up.” appears to be a slow start. It isn’t though. If it is not used well it can be rather trite. Well used it is wonderful. It has potential to tell a lot quickly.
“I woke up and nearly rolled off the raft,” sets the scene pretty well.
Waking up is a natural beginning. The trick to avoiding trite does not even need action. What a reader needs is a compelling picture.
“David wakes up. The drip, drip, drip of cold rain trickling in and dripping from the bowed roof of his box, won’t let him sleep.”
The two sentences above give the reader a hint at the time, weather and David’s economic position. These two sentences, are also a good springboard for setting David’s mood and telling what David’s needs are. He has an excuse to be grumpy and a simple goal that can further put him in trouble. He needs a new box and a lot of his stuff has gotten wet.
Waking up and dealing with the alarm clock is almost a requirement at the beginning of an anime. That is usually followed by a mad dash to get to school on the first day of classes. While this is really and truly trite, it is also quite fresh. The target audience is young. The target audience hasn’t seen the same anime year after year.
Trite and overused things are not eternally trite and overused. If they were, super hero movies would be a thing of the past. Remakes would never happen. Shakespeare would have never written a play.
What I am begging you to do is ignore the rules. It is good to get advice. Read advice written by fools like me and try to make the best sense of it. A lot of the advice given is correct if you are a hack writer. Some of the advice will help you refine and focus your work even if you are brilliant. Until you have an agent that tells you that they love your work but it needs adjustment, you have to decide on your own. On that magic day, my advice changes. Unless your agent is telling you to put your heart in a blender, listen. Listen anyway, if they like your book and they are investing their time in it, they are your best friend in the world. Until you have a publisher who is asking for you to finish your next book, you won’t know the answers. After that, it won’t matter to you since you won’t have the problem. Until then, don’t give up your dreams.