Monday, November 18, 2013

The Body On Page One

 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.

 - Susan


Terry Shames said...

I like that idea that you need conflict at the beginning, not necessarily a body.

I'm currently reading a book that leads off with several pages of ho-hum activity. I wouldn't have kept reading it if it wasn't by an author I had heard good things about. Sure enough, halfway through it's gotten really good. But I wonder if in her early books she had conflict earlier on.

Bottom line, even though I wasn't blown away by excitement in the first few pages, the writing was perfectly good--unlike many debut books I read in which the writing is poor and turns me off. So for me, good writing trumps a body.

Lisa Alber said...

I used to take workshop/conference writing advice so much to heart that I'd shut down, think I was doing everything wrong, and despair.

Like the whole thing with prologues--I had fits for years about this because my debut has a prologue. GASP. Catriona mentioned this on her Saturday guest post on The Debutante Ball--people get so vociferous about it! When really, prologues are just another craft trick in our arsenal of craft tricks.

But, the absolutely worst advice? A guru teacher who shall remain anonymous, who only writes in first person, who told me when I dared to bring a third-person piece to his workshop that third was basically for hacks and people who only sold paperbacks in airports. Can you believe that? I cried. And now, of course, I'm thinking: my paperbacks in airports? Hell, yeah, bring it on!

But it did stop me for awhile. I cried during the workshop too.

Susan C Shea said...

Lisa, what a horrible, unhelpful "guru!" Our job is to write a story that will capture readers, sometimes by teasing them in with soft whispers and sometimes with loud bangs. The fact that there are so many published crime fiction writers attracting their own audiences makes it abundantly clear there is no one right way.

Barry Knister said...

I happen to think the best advice writers can be given is guidance on how to read as writers, not as garden-variety readers. It's a different set of skills, skills that emphasize seeing how things work, not what happens next. Once a writer learns how to read like a writer, s/he shouldn't need to rely on how-to writing books. By extension, the worst advice would be (in my not-so-humble opinion)books full of exercises, with little analysis of passages of good writing.

Lisa Alber said...

So true, Susan. He was all ego, so, in reality, the worst instructor ever. He's still got acolytes though, which is interesting to me. One time I went to a reading of his acolytes, and their prose all sounded the same. It was like an MFA program gone very, very wrong. :-)

Anonymous said...

Lisa, so funny. It's a balance, learning to listen to advice we may not like and learning to ignore advice that is no good (or at least no good for us).

Barry, that's how I learned to write - by being an insatiable reader from toddlerhood on. I don't always slow down to analyze the writing. Some of it osmoses - things like tone, rhythm, and humor. But you're right that reading with your writing antennae up is a great way to learn this craft.

Susan C Shea said...

Whoops - I'm not anonymous! Must have hit the wrong button, Lisa and Barry. sorry.

Barry Knister said...

Lisa Alber--
I have to comment on your really bad experience. In my very un-humble opinion, writing in the third person is almost always more challenging AND more fun than confining oneself to a single pair of eyes and ears. Imagining events through several characters' perceptions requires that the writer BE those characters. I wish I'd been there. I would've asked the guru whether he thought Shakespeare was a hack for presenting events through multiple points of view. But on second thought, I wouldn't have bothered. He was obviously to dense to get it.