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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » How Not To Start A Story

   
Author Topic: How Not To Start A Story
TaoArtGuy
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I ran across this post today from the Newbie's Guide to Publishing blog. The post is over a year old but still rings true. Make sure to go through the comments as well, some more advice and funny stuff in there.
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MartinV
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After reading this topic, I'm actually terrified of beginning a story. I will need to go through this whole list to see if I haven't made a horrible mistake.
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Merlion-Emrys
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Yeah, thats sort of the problem with these kinds of things. You start worrying so much about following (or avoiding or whatever) what is said, it can paralyze your ability to actually do anything.


I mean, for the love of Elbesem, with all the things he says not to start a story with, what is left?


quote:
DO NOT START A STORY WITH DESCRIPTIONI don't care if you're describing a person, place, thing, era, or whatever. I want to read about conflict, not helper words.


So...how do you create conflict without being able to describe, at all....ANYTHING? This is just laughable to me.


Well, the guy said he was in a bad mood when he wrote this, and it shows. Most of it is, to me, "badly" written in such broad strokes and total absolutes as to be nearly useless.


Edit: TaoArtGuy, don't take what I just said to me I don't appreciate your thought in posting this. And some of what is said can be useful, but I disagree with much of it and disagree entirely in the absolute way its presented. It's presented as, and sounds like, a tired frustrated person ranting and that, to me, limits its usefulness.

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited January 04, 2010).]


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Antinomy
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A useful list. I might add another to it: Do not start a story with a dream.
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Merlion-Emrys
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After reading the rest of the comments...


I hear that whole "well they are master storytellers so they can get away with it" thing a lot but...thing is...I see a lot of stuff, in pro or semi pro magazines, but written by little-known people, that breaks various "rules" both as far as openings and otherwise.


I mean yeah a lot of the things he mentions are difficult to do effectively. And I realize judging a contest isn't about "hand holding" or whatever...but to me, if your going to give advice about something as intricate and subjective as creative writing, to really be useful, the advice needs to be a bit more in depth. Saying "don't start with description, I dont care of what"...well obviously, theres going to be some description. So, what do you mean, really?


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TaoArtGuy
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No problem, Merlion. I expect give and take on a forum. As long as everyone is expressing their opinion nicely (and you most certainly are) bring it on.

I'm not a big fan of "don'ts" myself, but look at the advice in context: here is a judge from a short story writing contest saying "these things don't work." As with all writing advice, file it away. Each time you see it repeated add a little more weight to the possibility that it is true. I've seen similar things to what he writes pretty often.

I want my writing to come across as fresh and new. Knowing what writers have done so often to inspire a post like the one I linked to helps me do that.


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Robert Nowall
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I try never to start a story with someone waking up. It got to be a problem when I noticed I'd done three stories in a row that way. I've had lapses---my latest begins with the main character waking up, but the process isn't particularly normal, and, besides, I plan to revise it---so I try to find some other place to do it.
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extrinsic
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How not to write writing advice: in a whiny, imperially commanding voice. That tone, tenor, mood, and register suit a grumpy, megalomoniacal, petulant, authority figure not long continuing in a leadership role. Not a good rhetorical voice for persuading improvements and positively influencing efforts. But a great voice for studying how not to address free-spirited writers.

If a voice is in second person direct or implied imperative, it's bound to be a decorum lapse.

About all I got from the blog is someone's annoyed who's bent on chastising writers as the bane of the blogger's existence. Trust or respect are compromised. The message gets lost in the method.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited January 04, 2010).]


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dougsguitar
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After reading the above comments I went to my bookshelf and checked for myself. Out of five Salvatore, four Goodkind, one Hemingway (books), I saw a comfortable blending of discription and and other content. It seems they were all using discription to introduce the characters in a realistic setting... none of them showed the character in a 'void' of descriptive words. Try the exersize with your own selection to get a good 'centering' on the advice.
One even starts with a first sentence;
"She didn't remember dying." T. Goodkind - Faith of the Fallen

[This message has been edited by dougsguitar (edited January 04, 2010).]


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Merlion-Emrys
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I agree with extrinsic.
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BenM
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I got a chuckle out of it. I mean, maybe he's out of line for posting what might better remain behind the scenes, but consider the context: Having to read & critique a couple of thousand short stories quickly - many of them probably awful - must be painful at times.

His last point is the one I agree with the most:

quote:
Are there exceptions to these rules? Of course. There are always exceptions. But I didn't see any in the 2000+ stories I had to endure.

But he doesn't explain why.

For me, these 'rules' tend to be a tool with which I can measure my own work and answer the question: "Is this the opening sentence this story needs?".

I find it hard to imagine starting a story with "Moronville, Ohio was a town of 8371 people originally founded in 1872 by Quakers." I mean, what ending is going to resonate with that?


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
But he doesn't explain why.


Thats the trouble. Its a rant. A rant about his being tired of reading so many "bad" stories (in other words, stories he didn't like) and offering up his very brief opinions on story openings. He then tells authors basically to take it to heart...but it isnt really advice, because it lacks the "why" you mention. It lacks any sort of depth at all, making it, in the end, not very useful as advice or guidance. Which he can't seem to decide if it is or isnt meant as.


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ScardeyDog
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I took his commanding tone to be humourous. I see from these comments that some people found it offensive. It's funny to see how differently we interpret things.

Anyway, thanks for posting the link.


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Merlion-Emrys
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I wouldn't say offensive, as such. Honestly, I feel someone that opinionated and, in my personal view narrow-minded is not "worth", so to speak, being offended by.

But as extrinsic says, when you speak in that tone and manner, it often robs you of respect and acknowledgement. You basically cast doubt on yourself by way of your breach of decorum and because you yourself are not being respectful.

In short, again...it just sounds like a burned out irritated person ranting. And thereby not, on its own, necessarily something to be taken to heart without a good sized grain of salt (as written...sure, a lot of what he says is worth listening to, but its hard to get past the grumpy, whiny voice its said in.)


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extrinsic
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I saw it as an intent to be humorous, too, but it fell flat from reading so many writing commentaries in that same far short of the mark attempt at an ironic voice. Woe is me! Feel my pain. Even a litotes or two and a bit of overstated hyperbole would have made it more dynamic. A writer complaining about outworn story openings in an outworn voice. C'est la vie.

I'm not complaining, but of late I've read a deluge of identical writing law breakers' stories. Not to say they were all entirely unworthy of my vastly more important time use, but I'd have been better served holding court on my porcelain throne in my imperial grass palace. Here's the First Law for all time and for all writers, don't do as I do, do as I command.


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tchernabyelo
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quote:
I find it hard to imagine starting a story with "Moronville, Ohio was a town of 8371 people originally founded in 1872 by Quakers." I mean, what ending is going to resonate with that?

Well, if the ending of the story involves the destruction of the town and the death of all its people, then you actually get a certain poignancy from that bare opening.

It's all about context.


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posulliv
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I have one hard and fast rule: a story probably ought to begin with a word, and that word in many cases should begin with a capital letter, unless it's more appropriate for the story to begin with something else like punctuation.

Everything else is just a guideline.

[This message has been edited by posulliv (edited January 04, 2010).]


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D2
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quote:
So...how do you create conflict without being able to describe, at all....ANYTHING? This is just laughable to me.

I did a writing exercise a very long time ago in which I was told that I had to write a (very) short story without using a single adjective.

At first, it was frustrating, but as I got into it, I started to get more familiar with just how much power there is in the rest of the language.

I think the article is a definite rant, but you have to admit it has a lot of good points. Starting a story off with something so completely cliche as the weather or waking up, for example, is a bad call unless it's done right. He isn't saying "never do it" -- he's saying that until you're good enough to do it, there are better alternatives.

Bear in mind that as much as you may disagree with him and his snarkiness, you might be hard-pressed to find a judge (much less an editor or a publisher) that isn't in the same mindset. They're looking for the best; if you have two openers, one a bland cliche and the other something more exciting, you're going to go with the latter. He's just ticking off things that are on his list of red flags.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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There are authors out there (Mike Stackpole is one who comes to mind) who would look at a list like this and say, "Oh, yeah?" and proceed to write (and sell) stories that start each and every way listed.

I look at this list and think that it might be a great list of possible writing challenges in which Hatrackers are challenged to start a story (13-line challenge) and make it work.

So there'd be, what, 14 different writing challenges? (Though I have to say that I can see that the grammar one and the exclamation points one could be particularly challenging.)

Anyone game to start some of these as writing challenges? There could be one each month, of the other 12, that would get us through the year.


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extrinsic
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I agree that that kind of challenge is a good idea. I practice flouting contemporary writing principles, at least because then I can better appreciate their frailties and avoid them. However, I don't believe I'm a good candidate for challenge facilitator. My approach and prompts wouldn't fit the Hatrack mold. I've lately and for awhile focused on a story's virtues and overlooking their vices in responses. Besides, I'm a horrible leader, a solitaire of the worst stripe, tending to dominate and control and manipulate toward my own selfish ends. A one year committment doesn't thrill me either. Too many irons soaking in the forge.
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BenM
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Ah extrinsic, I think don't (and this applies to anyone) let what you might perceive as personal limitations stop you from giving it a try. Writing is at some level about structure, communication, persuasion and rhetoric, and guiding entrants with a well thought out challenge is just another way to practice the art. After all, what's that worst that could happen? No one enters? Sounds just about as bad as a rejection letter.

If we're not dying to press for 12 in 12 months I might find myself available to run one or more of these, perhaps bi-monthly. As well as there being an active challenge running in the forum at the moment, personal writing and other commitments abound, so I wouldn't want to go jumping in with both feet today, per se.

Tomorrow though, is another day...


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Pyre Dynasty
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That would be a fun challenge. The bad grammar one would be painful though.


Here is my dos and don'ts about beginnings.
Do write well. Don't write poorly. Not really helpful, but there it is.


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MartinV
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I believe that weather could be used to create a hook. Example:

The wind howled unexpectedly, grabbing her cloak and pulling her backwards. She clung to the stone face with all her strength. I must not allow myself be killed this way, she thought desperately. Too many lives are at stake.

OK, maybe it's not the best of beginnings.


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rstegman
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I was a dark and stormy night. It was supposed to be high noon, sunny and calm. Moronville, Ohio was a town of 8371 people originally founded in 1872 by Quakers was now a smoking crater. John woke from a nightmare. Cheryl pulled him into the arm as the some hundred surivors huddled on the hill in the lea of a strong tree.
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philocinemas
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Sorry. Totally off the subject, but I can't resist:

I have driven through Pennsylvania on several occasions, and those Quakers must have been a rowdy bunch back in the day. The town names read like single-line summaries of a trashy romance novel. However, I don't believe I've ever driven through Moronville (of course, my wife would probably argue that I live there).

Now back to the regularly scheduled program...


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TaoArtGuy
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Details, people, details. You can't disprove an argument about short stories by providing exceptions from a novel.

The author of the post declares "I write thrillers." You think that might account for his advice to always start with action?

One of the more interesting comments to that post read "these things are symptoms of bad writing, not causes. A good writer can - and would - break any of them if it served the story."

Still I intend to treat the things he mentioned as warning signs. I can and do sometimes ignore warning signs in my life for whatever reasons, but they at least make me proceed more cautiously.


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Brendan
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Very funny rstegman. I think that this sentence could be improved.

John woke from a nightmare - he was sure that he would die today. He felt terrible. And I mean terrible!!!!!


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Teraen
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I wonder if maybe we missed the point of the rant. These aren't a list of things not to do per se (yes... I know he says they are. But work with me for a sec...) rather, they are a list of common traits that really bad stories share.

It doesn't mean you can't do anything on the list and end up with a good story. But when he says 2000+ stories were all vapid and dull, and Wow! They shared the following points... it may be a good way to diagnose problems in other stories. However, there is nothing wrong with the examples he gave in their own right.

It strikes me as things beginning writers may tend to do alot, and since beginning writers may tend to write less well than not-beginning writers, the list and bad writing have become linked.

Am I making any sense? Correlation doesn't imply causation. And all that stuff.


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BenM
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Am I making any sense? Correlation doesn't imply causation. And all that stuff.

Yeah, but never let common sense get in the way of a good rant? :)


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
It doesn't mean you can't do anything on the list and end up with a good story. But when he says 2000+ stories were all vapid and dull, and Wow!


Vapid and dull in his extremely jaded and at that moment burned out frustrated opinion.

Still doesn't count for much, to me. He succeeded in expressing his particular opinions, pet peeves and how tired he is basically of doing the job he's currently doing, but if he intended any of it as meaningful or useful advice, in my opinion he failed on various levels and for various reasons.


But once again, he and I are coming from entirely different points of view. I see creativity as sacred and strongly desire to encourage people to write (or paint or sculpt or play music or whatever) whereas his deal is based on 1) how burned out he is and 2) notions of some sort of objective standard of "quality" that I don't believe exists outside of each individuals mind.

Interesting to note too that while in the responses he does actually acknowledge that "good" and "bad" are subjective, he then replaces them with "publishable" and "unpublishable" as if those are any less subjective...sure, there are trends. But trends change and even while they exist plenty goes on that doesnt fit them.


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tchernabyelo
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Some of what is publishable now may become unpublishable according to changing trends and tastes.

Some of what is unpublishable now may become publishable according to changing trends and tastes.

But any slush reader will tell you that there is a LOT of material out there that was never publishable before, is not publishable now, and will never be publishable in the future.


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Robert Nowall
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Ultimately, for me, it's a search for cliches I've fallen into. When I realized I'd started three stories in a row with "waking up first thing in the morning," I actively looked to eliminate it in current and later stories.

I've fallen into another cliche with my recent stories, I've realized. (It doesn't involve the opening, it involves the nature of the lead character.) I'm stuck with it with this story, but I'll look for somethine else with my next one.

As soon as I realize I'm doing it, I go looking for something else to do. I don't look to do the same thing, over and over again.

(Actually, I was still working with the "waking up" opening thing with my current story, realizing it when I was retyping it last week. So when I got to Scene Two, I wrote [START HERE], a note to myself for the next draft, then put it in boldface type, and wrote on.)


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sholar
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Robert- here's a link full of fantasy cliches for you:
http://amethyst-angel.com/cliche.html
The sci fi link is not working

And the fantasy writer's exam:
http://www.rinkworks.com/fnovel/

I only answered yes once on my novel, though a few well, kinda but not really.

Of course, I got to those sites through hatrack, so probably everyone has seen them before.


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rstegman
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sholar,
I am taking notes, I can use all of them and that will improve my stories!!!!! so much imaginiation!!!!
<g>

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Teraen, your "correlation doesn't imply causation" post makes a lot of sense. Thank you for pointing that out.
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Architectus
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DO NOT START A STORY WITH WEATHER
Yes, you can work weather into the scene. But I don't care that it was sixty-five degrees on a spring morning, and if you make that your first sentence you're going to remain unpublished.

Perhaps he never read Dean Koontz’ Lightning. Sure, the advice is true, but if you start with weather well, such as in Lightning, it is a fine opening paragraph.
DO NOT START A STORY WITH CHARACTER DESCRIPTION
Concerning this rule, here is the opening of Odd Thomas.


“MY NAME IS ODD THOMAS, THOUGH IN THIS AGE WHEN fame is the altar at which most people worship, I am not sure why you should care who I am or that I exist.
I am not a celebrity. I am not the child of a celebrity. I have never been married to, never been abused by, and never provided a kidney for transplantation into any celebrity. Furthermore, I have no desire to be a celebrity.”

DO NOT START A STORY WITH PREMONITION

Check out the opening paragraph of Dean Koontz’ Dragon Tears. Can you tell I like Koontz?

DO NOT USE HELPER WORDS
Force yourself to pare away every adverb, and half your adjectives. Also kill any speaker attribution other than "said" and "asked."

This sounds like the advice of a beginner. Sure, for the most part, use “said” and “asked,” but please don’t limit yourself to just those tags. No best-selling author does, so why should you?

DO NOT USE EXCLAMATION POINTS!
Especially a bunch of them!!!!!!!

Don’t use a bunch of them, ever, that is true, but you should use them sometimes. Do not follow this advice and never use exclamations points. Try reading stories published in quality magazines, and you will find a few exclamation points, as you should.

DO NOT USE THE SAME FARUQING WORD TWICE IN THE SAME FARUQING PARAGRAPH
Get the faruquing point?

This is really bad advice. Just read about parallelism and study the masters, then you will see just how wrong this advice is.

-------------------------
Click here for free writing lessons, via video.

[This message has been edited by Architectus (edited January 14, 2010).]


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JSchuler
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quote:
Concerning this rule, here is the opening of Odd Thomas.

I don't think that's the kind of description he's talking about. I'm thinking it's more along the lines of "She was a red-haired, green-eyed 18-year-old wearing a bikini-top that was two sizes too small."

Come to think about it... I might read on


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
I don't think that's the kind of description he's talking about


Good example of how all this stuff is basically a matter of interpretation and perception.


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Robert Nowall
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I suppose I could've made this a separate new post, since it's somewhat off-topic, but...on cliches in the story itself (and not in the opening): a lot of what I actually finish seems to have some kind of resonance with me, if, more often than not, it happens to be something really old hat. Usually, if it doesn't, I wind up abandoning it.

Probably I'm a guy who's looking to put a new spin on something old, rather than go to the effort of coming up with something new.

To a certain extent, about, oh, fifteen-some years ago, I got locked into a kind of story that boiled down to, "Who am I?" I wound up with main characters that (1) others believe were this one particular person, but (2) the main character himself or herself either (a) knew for sure that or (b) did not believe he / she was that particular person.

Why this worked for me, I don't know---probably I was boiling my own life down to "Who am I?" and the idea fit in neatly with that. Two novels, some of my Internet Fan Fiction, and nearly everything since, falls into that.

The later cliche I was talking about above, involved a number of characters who, how can I put this? they had the memories of and often the outward form of a person, but were not that person at all---but they're not villains at all, they're somebody who just got caught in a bad situation, they're intended to be sympathetic. I'm explaining this badly---the details of how it happens vary from story to story---but I think it covers the basics. It kinda segues from my "Who am I?" period as these characters have no idea (or an incorrect idea) of who they are.

I've made some effort to get away from this, but, like I said, the matter must resonate with me in some way---I keep coming back to it. But I'll try again.


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Architectus
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JS, I would agree with not starting a story with generic discription.

But the way Odd Thomas starts is so gripping. He continues on just talking like that for pages before the story finally begins, and I love every bit of it, especially the part about the cat peeing on his shoe.

There are so many interesting discriptions you could start with.

He was an oridinary man, but for his eyes, or rather the fact that he had none. He had two empty sockets. Despite this, most people that knew John, would swear that he could see them. John didn't even use a walking cane. Yup, he was an enigma, alright.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Robert, it may be that you need to explore that question in as many ways in your fiction as you can find. I'm not sure why that would be, but maybe your subconscious is only interested in sending you ideas that go that way. Maybe it's something you have to do until you "get it right?" (Cue GROUNDHOG DAY?)
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BenM
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Some (most?) authors do settle into a specific style of story and I think that's perfectly fine. What's even better, if it tends towards an exploration of self, is that since (at some level) one is always changing, then the stories that evolve from that will be ever varied!
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jayazman
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I thought the post was hilarious. I don't believe he was trying to be helpful to new writers, he was ranting and he knew it. I looked at it as a humorous way to let off some steam.
Also, some of the comments were pretty darn funny.
Thanks for posting the link.

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Robert Nowall
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They say a writer finds his theme and then writes just one story---just with different characters and scenery. (I got this from one of the Collected Works of Theodore Sturgeon commentaries.)
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babooher
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Has anyone ever heard anything about not starting stories with dialogue? I can't think of where I picked this restriction up, but I seem to feel like it's something that should be avoided.
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sholar
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babooher, I have heard that, but can't cite it. The argument I heard was that starting with dialogue doesn't work because you don't know anything about the characters of the situation or the world. Dialogue can be difficult for establishing that. And most authors use it badly.
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dee_boncci
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I don't think this is all a matter of just personal taste, but rather of execution. I just read an intriguing section in a book called The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb, and some similar material in The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maas. They give examples of effective material that appears on the surface to defy the "rules of thumb" (e.g., opening a story with weather or setting description). But if you look carefully at the examples they provide you see that the author is doing more than providing superficial description or a shallow overused forshadowing (ala "it was a dark and stormy night").

It's probably worth noting that the context in both cases was novels as opposed to short stories where's there's more incentive to get on with things in a hurry.

I am now encouraged to go and look at places where I actually "like" passages that appear to defy the rules-of-thumb and examine carefully what is going on there. And in that effort I've found it more difficult to find/recall those memorable passages that are at odds with the standard list of advice than I would have thought. Maybe someday if I get motivated a stand-alone thread on that topic would be interesting...


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micmcd
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Came across an article on criticism on Cracked today and it had one line simply too precious not to pass on to this thread.

quote:

You are a bad writer but an amazing alchemist since you seem to have figured out how to turn poo into paragraphs.

If I ever got a line like that back in a real crit... well, I'd be a little bit crushed, but a little bit laughing my ass off. I do hope that of the many, many places that will reject me without giving much in the way of feedback, at least a few will do it with style.

Also, I hope that on the same day another agent/publishing house accepts my work, because that way I'll be able laugh right away. Otherwise I'll only be able to think it's funny after drowning my pain in beer.

[This message has been edited by micmcd (edited January 29, 2010).]


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babooher
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micmcd, that is wonderful. Thanks for the line, thanks for the link, thanks for making me smile.
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