Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Following the rules

I don’t need your stinking rules, says Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds, and I agree. Fun post, also totally spot-on.

Chuck is, of course, referring to the Rules for Writers you see around and about, such as:

Don’t open on weather.

Don’t open with a character looking in a mirror.

Don’t open on a character just waking up.

Never ever use an adverb ever.

And for all that’s fucking holy, writing a prologue is a major biggum no-no . . .

Then Chuck takes all this apart, as well he should. Hey, remember when somebody criticized Lois McMaster Bujold for the look-in-a-mirror thing and the book was MIRRORDANCE? The critic just hadn’t noticed that maybe the mirror thing was appropriate in this particular case?

Patrick Lee’s THE BREACH opened with a character driving somewhere, a Bad Thing according to the Rules. Fabulous thriller, Lee’s truly gifted, btw; I have occasional plausibility issues with his books, but not with his writing.

I can’t think of a great book that opens with a character waking up just at this precise moment, but I’m sure there are dozens. Hundreds.

Anyway, after trashing the idea of rules, Chuck then adds the conclusion that makes the whole post true:

With this, I offer two very important caveats:

First, just because everything is permitted doesn’t mean everyone likes those particular things. . . . second, if you are going to break any of these prohibitions, know that they exist for a reason. Defying them is meaningful — an act of rebellion that says two things: one, “I don’t give a shit about your rules,” and two, “I am good enough to step on them and break their little bones.

Yes, it does. The only real rule is: You can do whatever you’re good enough to get away with.

Even write a prologue.

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4 Comments Following the rules

  1. Craig

    “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

    I’ve never actually read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but that’s one of the great opening lines in literature.

  2. Michael S. Schiffer

    Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber opens with the protagonist not only waking up, but amnesiac to boot, which IIRC is another one of those don’ts. It seems to have worked out okay.

    As a reader, I actually like a bunch of currently unfashionable devices. I often like prologues. I like maps. I like entries from the Encyclopedia Galactica and in-universe history books. (I’m probably the only one who appreciates Cherryh opening Downbelow Station with an excerpt from a dry history of the Company Wars. And of course I ate up Tolkien’s appendices with a spoon.)

  3. Rachel

    Ah . . . yes, those LotR appendices. No, didn’t read ’em. :)

    Wait, doesn’t everybody love maps? I thought everybody loved maps!

    I detest MOST prologues. My very own prologues are different! As, of course, are a handful of other prologues that actually work. What does not work for me:

    The Vast Intersteller Entity prologue, as in UP THE WALLS OF THE WORLD (a book I loved, incidentally — just not keen on the prologue). For some reason, I seemed to encounter lots of those all at once and overdosed.

    The Battle. A huge battle where I don’t know any of the characters or why I should care. No. Just start at chapter one and slip in the backstory as you get to it. BLACK DOG reviews suggest to me that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who want the backstory handed to them in one big infodump at the start and those who want little dabs of the backstory sprinkled into the actual story.

    I actually do like the Downbelow history excerpt, though. Don’t ask me, maybe because it is SO divorced from the actual novel that it doesn’t have the bait-and-switch feel of some prologues?

    And a very short evocative prologue can work for me.

    Also: yes, I thought that was a great way to start NINE PRINCES OF AMBER. I may have overdosed on amnesia since, though.

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