Wednesday, July 16, 2008

the don'ts of writing introductions

My good friend Stacey just sent me this blogpost, which I read w/ amusement. His (the blogger, that is, and not Stacey) came on the heels of a reading marathon as a judge for a short story contest. I could probably write a similar list for incoming freshman composition placement essays, and some of these don'ts I'm already well aware of, but some of these made me do a quick mental scan of our current novel chapter intros while also calling into question whether maybe the guy was just slightly batshit from reading too many pages in too short a span of time. I've been there, amigo.

And so, to piggyback (I've been using that word all day in this very context, for some reason) on his list of don'ts, I'm putting in my two cents.

Don't start a story w/ weather.
My twin brother warned me against this. Never begin w/ a weather report, he says. Good to know.

Don't start a story w/ character description.
Ok. Don't think I've done that either (at least I sure as hell hope not).

Do not start a story by addressing the reader.
Ok, here's where I may argue a little bit. I had opened Chapt One (we'll get to prologues too, in a minute) w/ I used to be a professor, you know (un-italicized in the original, of course). Granted, I could probably lose the you know and keep the rest. But to some degree I think it works because of the nature of the protag as well as the scope of the novel -- I mean, she's a blogger; she's got a one-on-one rapport w/ her readers, her audience. The point is to avoid the cliches, I think. "You'll never believe what happened..." and that sort of thing. But I'll bet Theodore Sturgeon could've come up w/ a kick-ass opening line that addresses the reader and knocks her socks off at the same time.

Don't start a story w/ a premonition.
For example: Elisa couldn't have known she was going to be piggybacking on another person's blog when she woke up to sunny skies in her tempurpedic bed... Yeah, that blows, doesn't it. (As well as the fact that I don't have a tempurpedic bed.) Which leads to:

Don't start w/ a protag waking up.
Um, but what if the conflict is, say, that the protag went to bed w/ someone she hadn't intended to go to bed w/?

Don't start a story w/ cliches.
They always say the best made (or is is "laid"?) plans go to waste, or something like that.

Don't start a story w/ setting description.
The blogger uses an example of description in terms of background history. Star's Hollow had a population of 206 ever since it was founded in 1865, until yesterday, when it increased by one more...
I would think that scene-setting, however, is quite important. The reader needs a grasp of where she is standing, sitting, sleeping, waking, eating, drinking, making love, etc.

Don't start a story w/ telling.
Oh yeah. I know that one. It's ok in your first drafts, but lose it for the final.

Don't start a story w/ description.
The blogger says he wants to read about conflict, not helper words. Ok. I understand that. But has he ever read John Irving or Andre Dubus III? Do I need to re-read them? Because they're so detailed. They're not flowery, mind you, but I would call them descriptive, yet also active.

Don't use helper words.
This means lose the adverbs and unnecessary adjectives. For example, tiny kitten (sorry, PIC -- it's the first one that came to my mind). Yeah, Stephen King already pounded that one into my head. (Although, I insisted on keeping she ate voraciously because come on, that's such a good word!)

Don't start a story w/ a prologue.
He meant short stories, but added, "You're novel probably doesn't [need a prologue] either."
Not only that, but I just lengthened it in this latest revision.

Don't use exclamation points!!!!!
I've been busting my mom's chops for doing so.

Don't use the same faruqing word twice in the same faruqing paragraph.
"Get the faruqing point?" And that's the faruquing blogger's faruqing word choice, btw.
My response: But what if the faruqing repetition works?

Grammar and spelling should be perfect.
He adds, "Ditto annoying dialect spelling." Give me a friggin break w/ that one, willya?
(And btw, he used "do not" for all of these. I can't help but think, good god, he's not one of those guys, is he...) Dialect spelling lends to voice, be it the protag's the narrator's, the guy that asks for directions, etc. Am I gonna go overboard w/ it? Probably not. For example, I'm not gonna write "wawtuh" everytime the NYer protag says "water" (or "wahtah," if she's a New Englander). But I am gonna use "gonna" if she says "gonna," and if a suthuna is visiting New York for the first time, then I may throw in a coupla y'alls in. Language is meant to be played with.
In an intro, however? Probably not. Depends. If it's a guy who just got off the airplane from Iraq and walks out of JFK to hail a cab, then fuggettabouttit!!!!!!! (HA!)

Don't make your main character an animal. Ever.
So much for my story about Duffy, the illegal immigrant monkey who learns to ride a forklift.
In the crapper.

The blogger concedes that there are always exceptions to these rules, and there are. Stephen King points out the difference between good writers, great writers, and fucking great writers. (I think "fucking" was *my* word choice this time. Sorry.) My guess is that this guy didn't even get many good writers. Or, he got inexperienced writers, or writers who came out of high school thinking it was ok to write this way. When I think of the writing I did 20 years ago... Eeek.

But I think there was a crucial piece of advice that the blogger left out, some important DOs that the aspiring writer needs to hang on to when he/she is compelled to open with, It was a dark and stormy night:

Strive to be better.
It's true that there's a lot of competition out there. Instead of being overwhelmed by it, decide to put yourself in the thick of it, but in the upper tier.

Challenge yourself to revise one more time.
It's never really finished; it just has to go to print at some point.

Read the introductions to every book and short story you own.
My twin brother loves Theodore Sturgeon. He made me go to the library and take out a book of Sturgeon's stories just to read the introductions. Look at your favorites, especially.
However, if they all begin w/ the above don'ts, then you've got a problem...

Scrutinize every word choice.
Is the right word leered, glared, watched, eyed, stared, or looked? Kittens don't usually leer, for instance. (ha! there's your justice, PIC!) Every word matters. Each one counts.

Less is more.

Hook the reader.
Nuff said.

You can do it. I just know you can.
Now I've gotta read all those comments in response to his blog...

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