So, if you read the Spag page, you’ll likely notice I’m pretty confident about how things work on the page from a technical standpoint.
Imagine spag as another continent, and now we’ve traveled on a ship (poorly named “Rules”) and arrived in occupied territory, a whole new land in which our every move could prove dangerous to us and those already here.
We may not be welcome here at all, in fact, because this territory is Voice, and its population is (and should be) reluctant to trust our interference.
We must tread lightly, now, to do the least harm. You know, unlike the invaders who came before us and left a terrible legacy.
There are lists of words floating around the interwebs about words to avoid, especially in first pages. (Soft steps, come along.) A few of these are: just, even, seems (and all its variations), suddenly, that, really, very, etc.
43, 23, and fillers to cut. The reasoning for this is sound (we did not travel on ships without tools to survive, after all); these words are easy to overuse, misuse, and rely on to do our storytelling for us.
But for every reason not to use them, there can be valid reasons to keep them in. Rather than mass deleting lists of words willy-nilly, consider their purpose on your pages, for your story and its unique voicing. These words may, in fact, be living structures that belong in this territory and should be left undisturbed.
I don’t know; you do.
Some wonderfully-intentioned masters of craft have decided adverbs weaken prose. This is essentially trying to import a bizarre fashion trend into this new territory, where such fashion would be cumbersome, hazardous, or even ridiculous. What about prepositions, which are often also adverbs? Can you imagine a story without using up/down, in/out, above/below, before/after? Honestly?
Rather than striking out adverbs, consider your verbs (always in light of Voice). Are you choosing the strongest possible verbs while remaining true to the story voice? If so, congratulations! Then consider if what the adverb (or adverbial phrase) adds to the sentence is important; does it reveal character or tone or something else integral to your vision? If not, yeah, fine, toss it. If it does, though, be careful following the no-adverbs agenda, because it’s encroaching on something valuable, something that belongs here where we do not.
Show Don’t Tell
Oh. My. God. This is the worst advice in the history of writing advice, and it’s essentially bringing a nuclear bomb to a knife fight.
The whole point of this advice was to decrease critical thinking about our environment and societal structures, and it’s a mess and a disservice to writers everywhere to keep passing this trash around as scripture.
Look, showing is great. Do that, and do it often and well. But don’t neglect to tell the reader WHY we’re being shown things or what those things MEAN. We want to see and experience all the things in your story, but in order to fully connect–mind, body, and spirit–we need More. Don’t just describe; explain, express, evoke.
Please. And thank you.
Many advise avoiding backstory entirely in the first 5-10 pages, and I understand why… But I still disagree. The point is: don’t drop us out of the present moment to rewind time and info dump us UNNECESSARILY. In opening pages, writers have a huge task, and backstory can, and often does, complicate that task. Still, it’s awfully hard to understand and relate to a character we’re just meeting without knowing anything about what makes them “them,” and if a line or three will bridge that gap for readers and help us be grounded in the scene/world/setting/POV, don’t cut that out simply to honor a rule.
I mean, do try to stay present, and do save the flashbacks and three+ paragraphs of explanation about the past for later pages, but don’t fear ALL backstory information. Some of that is necessary context that will propel readers deeper and further into Story.
This is all excellent advice. But maybe we can trim it to just: don’t be boring? I dislike cliches and tired tropes as much as any readers, but I’m never opposed to being surprised by the many ways these can be twisted. Look up the opening tropes, and make sure your story only starts there if it’s unarguably NOT boring. Don’t let the readers feel like they’re in a cliche, and… Yeah. 🤷
People rail against prologues because new/inexperienced writers tend to overuse them. It’s common to write a prologue just to get the story going, to let the writer energy make friendly with a new story and get grounded in the world. Are they the terrible monsters so many make them out to be? Well, lol, sometimes (coughs:: often). They can also be perfect for the story.
The prologue proving test:
Does it setup an emotional problem that will drive the rest of the story?
Does it present ongoing world building, setting, theme, and character issues readers will grapple with for the rest of the story?
Does it align with the immediate situation and context for the protagonist in chapter one, in a way that chapter one requires to work?
If the answers are ALL yes, ignore the haters–your story has an effin prologue. If the answers aren’t a resounding yes across the board, maybe tuck it away somewhere special where you can love it privately?
I could go on forever–and would, honestly, if I didn’t need sleep.
If I’ve missed a writing rule you’re struggling with, please mention it in the comments, and I’ll follow up as soon as I’m able! Remember that these “rules” should not disarm your voice or strip it of what it needs to breathe and thrive.
You are you, a person and not a computer, and the rules don’t and can’t account for all that you are or the words you may need, particularly if you’re writing from a marginalized perspective that hasn’t gotten the literary attention white/cis/het/abled/Christian/males have had. Borrow from these rules when you’re certain they improve your story, but guard your voice against them taking control.
I hope you all feel empowered—emboldened even—to play with word choice, rhythm, and flow however best suits your story and artistic vision. You are awesome! Go be awesome on the page!!
**Also, I apologize for any discomfort caused by my colonialism analogy.**