It’s the last day of January, and newbie writing advice still sucks.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that the definition of “newbie” is essentially useless. I see it used to mean people trying to write fiction for the first time as well as people who’ve been writing for decades but are only now seriously working toward a finished piece for publication. I see it used for first-time published authors as well.
These are all different populations. The 13-year-old on Wattpad whose first epic fantasy comes in at a mind-bending 7,000 words needs different advice than the 48-year-old querying a manuscript for the first time.
And yet Advice To Newbies™ appears everywhere, tagged implicitly as “Things You Must Do Or Give Up Hope Of Publication Forever.”
As the kids say, fuck that noise.*
Advice To Newbies™ includes stuff like “don’t use adverbs” and “use only ‘said’ as a dialog tag” and “make sure your chapters aren’t too long.” And my personal favorite and pet peeve: “Don’t write a prologue, and if you do, don’t include it when you’re querying the book.”
To which I can only say: …Really?
Because all of this sage newbie advice strikes me an awful lot as telling people “Pick the color that corresponds to the number in that space, and don’t paint outside the lines.” You may get something serviceable on the other side, but it’s going to be generic as hell.
Writing is craft. It’s a skill. Almost all of us can learn it. Almost all of us can improve on the skills we have.
But writing is also an art form, and at some point you’ve got to start coloring outside the lines.
Advice To Newbies™ tends to be geared toward craft. The purpose of a writer is to get a story into the reader’s head without making them think too much about the individual words. Overuse of adverbs makes for cluttered prose. Dialogue written with anything-but-‘said’ is clumsy to read.
But adverbs and not-‘said’s are tools. Yes, they’re often overused by newbies. When you first write a piece of fiction, you’ve got all these shiny, sparkly words you can use, and you want to use all of them. It’s fun.
And I’d argue that most writers, when they’re starting out, have to do this.
Art is about self-expression. It’s not about trying to precisely measure what Aggregated Literary Agent 99 is going to like or dislike about your opening paragraph. It’s not about which theme Famous Successful Author is going to be looking for in the next anthology they’re curating.
Art is about You The Writer. And if you try to skip evolutionary steps, You The Writer is going to get squashed.
Now, those of you who remember what I titled this blog entry will notice that I left out prologues when I talked about overused tools. Those of you who’ve actually read my stuff will possibly remember that all three of my published books have prologues.
I am here to defend the integrity of the prologue.***
Yes, even the Bad Infodump Prologue, which seems to be a common conceit of epic fantasy. Writers who’ve built complex worlds often think, in all sincerity, that readers will be lost if they aren’t told up front what happened in the years before the Great Nebula Burst.
Here’s some for-real Advice To Newbies: your readers do not need to know. Really, they don’t. You know, and that texture will show up in the story. You may not see it–you’re too close–but they will.
Which isn’t to say that Bad Infodump Prologues are always Bad.
I recently read a series book which started years after the end of the previous one, and the author included a prologue summarizing both the events of the intervening years and The Story So Far. It was perfectly well-written, and from the point of view of a character I knew and liked, but it wasn’t necessary.
The events of the intervening years were not so individually important that they couldn’t have been sprinkled into the main story as needed. And the As You Know Bob of the rest of the series? I knew it all already, and I knew and cared about the characters. For a new reader, who had no connection to any of these people…hm. I’m skeptical the prologue would drive readers to go back to the earlier books unless they’d already decided to do so.
In sum: Well-written, entertaining enough for the most part, but utterly unnecessary.****
But here’s the thing: the problem with Bad Infodump Prologues is not the prologue part of it. It’s the infodump. Infodumps anywhere are almost always unnecessary, and whether you put them in a prologue or stuff them into a chapter makes no difference.
But here’s more for-real Advice To Newbies: sometimes you do need to cough up some backstory.
Do those seem contradictory? That’s the problem with Advice To Newbies™: it lacks nuance. The line between infodump and backstory is fine and fuzzy, and will vary with every book you write.
“But Liz,” I hear your newbie writer self ask, “how do I know where the line is?”
Which is how we get to the title of the post.*****
FFS, write the damn prologue.
Infodump the hell out of everything. Write an encyclopedia of magic. Draw up a schematic of every weapon your people use in battle. Produce an illuminated history of your world, complete with redactions and political propaganda. Do it.
You can’t learn how to use the tools if you don’t use the tools.
Now, if you get to the point where you want to publish this particular work – that’s when you start thinking about whether or not you’re infodumping in a way that’s going to be tedious to your readers; but until then, just write.
Every word you fall in love with and hang on to for revision after revision before you realize oh, hell, it’s just not working and I have to throw it out is part of developing your craft and honing your skills. Learning to evaluate your own work and decide when something you love isn’t working is developing your art.
You have to do this. There are no shortcuts. The only way to get to good writing is to do a whole lot of bad writing. None of it is ever wasted. Not one word.
And now I’ve done what drives me nuts when I see others do it: I’ve conflated prologues and infodumps. I was going to talk about prologues that do work.
Do mine work? That’s subjective, of course, but I like them. I feel pretty strongly that the stories need them. They set a tone. But I recognize that what I write is deliberately cinematic: I think in scenes. Prologues are often used in film, everything from the iconic Star Wars text roll to the first 10 minutes of Raising Arizona. My prologues are time-and-geography shifts that tell of an event that’s going to be significant to the story in ways the main characters aren’t going to recognize for a while. It’s a way of letting the reader in on something the characters don’t know.
And to get all self-reflective for a moment…I think it’s tied to point of view for me. The Central Corps books are written in close(ish) third person. It’s not uncommon for different characters to interpret the same events in different ways. Handing the reader another perspective is another way of showing that a character, no matter how objective they may think they are, is still seeing things through their own very narrow lens.
The standalone book I’m working on doesn’t have a prologue. There’s no room for one in this story. It’s written in first person because I don’t want the reader to see what the characters do not see; I want them to recognize contradictions at the same time as my narrators.
Different story, different tools.
And I guess that’s the point. Advice To Newbies™, while usually framed as a list of What Not To Do, is really just a list of Things You May Need To Practice A Lot Before They’ll Work Well For You. Instead of “don’t do this,” the advice should be “do this a lot so you can figure out when it’s exactly what you need vs. when it’s a story-killing mistake.”
I’ve said it before, but the longer I bang my head against this authorial brick wall, the more I believe it: the biggest mistake newbies make is to approach every story as if it’s The One that’ll get published. It’s so much harder to make art if your focus is on what other people are going to think of it.
So use all your tools. Bake all the things. Use that weird flour you bought online because it was on sale, and see what happens. Write stream-of-consciousness that makes no sense and long, pedantic infodumps that mean nothing to anyone but you.
Because the most important thing is to write with joy, even if you’re writing a tragedy. If you don’t write your heart–if you don’t love your own work–you’ve no prayer of really reaching anyone else.
Use the damn tools. Write the damn prologue. Really and truly, you can get the rest in editing.
* Do the kids still say that? I get the sense it’s kind of an old-fashioned term now. But most of the kids I know are, in fact, 13, so maybe it’s still OK for adults to use it. In any case, y’all know what I mean.
** If you’re one of those people who skip prologues–FFS, don’t do that. I put it there for a reason. I mean, I can’t police your reading or anything, but it’s part of the story. Would you skip Chapter 9? Yeah, I know; for some reason my Chapter 9s tend to usher in plot twists. Go figure. What was I talking about again?
*** I think this means the entire blog entry up to now was a prologue. About that: sorry.
**** I won’t name the book because I don’t do book reviews, but it was awesome and I feel bad picking on the author’s prologue because I love their stuff and am rabidly waiting for the next book in the series, and if they write another infodump prologue I do not care as long as they write.
***** Okay, maybe everything before this was the prologue. I don’t revise these much, you know. Have pity on my poor Voyager editor; he had to put up with 390,000 words of this nonsense.