This week's question: What was the most useless, destructive thing you ever learned in writing class or in a writing craft book?
I’m struggling with this week’s question because the classes I’ve taken have been mostly in the form of conference sessions or short seminars, where I tend to internalize one important idea. My own filtering process eliminates some that don’t work in my writing. The only multi-week course I took was from the witty, smart Judy Greber, a.k.a. Gillian Roberts, who has made it a point to never give bad advice.
The most useless idea I ever picked up can’t be blamed on a speaker, but on my simplistic interpretation of more seasoned advice. Mystery writers everywhere have heard this one: You need a body on page one. So untrue, and not something any of the successful authors whose words I lapped up would say. I tried it a few times, got pretty close to page one, but making it a hard and fast rule is artificial to my style of storytelling.
What teachers do say is that in the crime fiction genre you need a conflict on page one. Your job is to signal that the world the reader has entered is not quite as it should be. Preferably, the friction will be related to the protagonist’s coming crisis. However, I’ve read the work of some good storytellers whose first conflict has to do with putting the kids to bed, or having the correct bus fare, or falling on the ice. These writers use that conflict, however seemingly distant from the primary plotline, to show me something about the protagonist or her world, the world that will be disturbed by what happens on the main stage.
That’s not to say some authors don’t start with a body on page one, and do it brilliantly. Police procedurals frequently start there, since that’s the moment the cops begin their detecting narrative. Serial killer novels may start with the villain disposing of his latest victim in some cruel fashion, so that we get an idea of the heinous character of the criminal. But if every piece of crime fiction had to start there, think how bored readers would be, how predictable and formulaic the genre would become.