Don’t Write Boring – Part II

Overzealous editing?

Overzealous editing?

Last week (before my anti-virus software went rogue and hijacked my laptop), I wrote about chopping the boring parts out of a story to make it better. I meant your own story! The managers at Barnes and Noble are very cross that you smuggled in a pair of scissors and attempted to edit their inventory manually. If you do that again, I shan’t post anymore! Got it?

So anyway…

Writers are known post the beginnings of their manuscripts on online writing forums for critique and feedback. I’ve seen ‘em do it! Many times the opening goes something like, “There were five of us living in the little ranch house on Maple Street. It was my Mom and dad, my brother Jimmy, who was a year older than me, my twin sister Mary, and me, Lisa. Even though the house was small and we didn’t have a lot of room, we were pretty happy. Then, in the summer of ’92, when we went to Mexico for vacation, everything changed forever.”

Writers have many intriguing options for starting a story. What I just wrote is not one of them, but developing writers do it all the time. They begin by explaining.  Just as movie making is so much more than pointing a camera toward pretty people and saying action, writing a good story is so much more than explaining what happened to the characters. For starters, writers have to decide what parts are worth telling.

In the example above, we have five family members, not wealthy, who go to Mexico for vacation, where something happens that changes their lives. With only that information to go on, each of us would take the tale in a different direction. Some of you would write a poignant tale of love and loss. Others would build a mystery. At least a couple of you would turn out an epic saga, and still more would unnerve readers with biological or psychological horror.

I haven’t figured out what type of fiction I’m good at yet, but  I’m not a poet who composes lyrical prose or a worldbuilder gifted at setting up a 10-volume series. I try to skip the exposition and reveal my characters and their lives through action and dialog. I’d start my version of this story with Lisa and clan already on their way to Mexico, flying into a sudden storm, and about to experience a hair-raising landing.

Why? One, because nobody cares about Lisa’s ranch house or how long she’s lived there or what shoes she packed or what brand of dental floss she prefers. We’ll find about her life as we go, through little details and bits of dialog that give clues. Two, because “Lisa’s fingernails clawed helplessly across the stainless steel armrest as the jet bumped and plunged its way through the giant black cloud that came from nowhere” is a much better opening line than the bland drivel I wrote 5 paragraphs ago. And, three, because her frightening descent foreshadows the fact that she will later get sucked into a sandpit in the Yucatan and discover an underground kingdom of mole people who intend to sacrifice her twin sister in honor of their giant black insect god, Garfoobel, at midnight.

Hey, this is my story and I want mole people in it. You gotta pro’lem widdat?

Not everyone writes action-packed commercial fiction, so I’m not suggesting all novels have to begin with a thrill ride. I am suggesting they start with something other than banality. What is your strength as a writer? Emotion? Imagery? Elegant prose? Start there.

Writing Rule #1: All stories are better with Mole People in them.

Writing Rule #1: All stories are better with Mole People in them.

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37 responses to “Don’t Write Boring – Part II

  • skywalkerstoryteller

    Good advice that brings a chuckle to this reader.

    • ericjbaker

      My first comment got deleted. Hmmm. anyway, I was saying that I thought of you when I got to the “poignant” part. Your version would capture the family dynamic and their conflicting emotions toward each other brilliantly.

  • nrhatch

    Mole people? Ferget aboud it! :mrgreen:

    Your second start, with Lisa on the plane, is much more better than hearing about her house in the passive voice.

    But you already knew that, didn’t ya?

    On an unrelated note: Tonight’s the night! (Last night and tomorrow night too):
    http://nrhatch.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/two-upcoming-sky-events/

    BFF and I just enjoyed a peek at the Planetary Triple of Venus (bottom), Jupiter (left) and Mercury (right) in the night sky just past sunset. We’re going to head out again in a few minutes when the sky is a tad darker . . . although I think the clouds have blotted out the planets.

    You should be able to view it tonight and tomorrow at sunset (if clouds don’t get in the way).

  • byjhmae

    This garfoobel fellow sounds terrifying,,,

  • Val Mills

    Good to reminded of these things. I want to know more about the mole people and Garfoobel 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      Are you sure? Once you learn about it, you can’t unlearn it! Stronger people than me have reduced to quivering blobs of jello from this tale of despair and horror!

  • goanflavour

    Brilliant post! I’d love to read more about Lisa’s adventures.

    Point taken. Focus on strengths and don’t bore the reader. Thanks for bringing that out so well.

  • mogispie

    I am at that part of my life (novella) now where I need to oomph things up. And I’m struggling. My life is so boring, I need mole people in my life!

  • lythya

    Have you read Plot and Structure ? If not I think it’d fall in your taste. And it’s quite short, too. I’m halfway through it myself.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Sorry to hear about your computer. I’m still trying to figure out my strengths, Eric. It certainly isn’t humor, that’s your specialty. Where in the world do you find your photos?

    • ericjbaker

      Technology knows I do not like it, and it takes every opportunity to poke me. Just wait until I become evil dictator of the world!*

      *Free cupcakes for everyone

      I haven’t read your fiction, but I’d say your strength as a writer from what I’ve read is fluidity and economy. Perfect freelance style, and very polished. I get my picture ideas from my vast mental catalog of arcane pop-culture knowledge, and then I play fetch in Google images. Sometimes I crop and chop to fit my layout preferences.

  • Jodi

    You’ve nailed one of my pet peeves of new writers right on the head! Never start with a paragraph or, gasp, more of exposition. ANYTHING is better than that. I prefer leading with an image or something else vivid and alive. Go mole people!

    • ericjbaker

      It’s funny how the commenters on those forums try to be supportive by saying things like, “It’s a bit passive, but if that’s the voice you’re going for, it works on that level.”

  • 1WriteWay

    Excellent advice, Eric! I try to avoid exposition when starting up my novel, short story, etc. I prefer to start with a primary character in the middle of some doing something, like waking up to discover she’s been buried in a box by mole people.

    • ericjbaker

      That is a great beginning to a novel! Dickens would be beside himself with envy.

      I only found out today that you write mysteries (why didn’t I know that?), and your technique is a proven classic. I tried to write a mystery short once and it was a miserable failure. Not even my mom could fake that she liked it.

      • 1WriteWay

        Oh, don’t give up! I’m don’t know that I’m any good at it, but it can be fun to write 😉 And you could throw in some mole people … a mystery/horror story …

  • writerdood

    I think my current beginning is somewhat boring. I want to change it. The problem is, my readers seem to like it. I keep thinking I want to start with some action. Instead, I start out describing an old man meditating in a jungle. He wakes up and tries to figure out what the Hell he’s doing there. And he’s surrounded by a throng of green bunnies happily munching on the vegetation. I think I need to try it on some different readers. Either that or use the next chapter to start the story. That one starts with a kids running for his life from a tiger. Much more exciting than an old wizard trying to figure out why he wiped his own memories.

    • ericjbaker

      A quiet beginning can be plenty intriguing. I’ve got a story that starts with a guy standing in line at the office cafeteria. The two people in front of him are gossiping about him without realizing he is right behind them. Not exactly a car chase, but I’m hoping the emotional tension of the moment encourages the reader to stick around and find out what happens.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Beginnings are not my strong suit, or at least it wasn’t in my WIP. When I read it to my writing group, they told me it was too descriptive/too much scene-setting and not enough scene period.

    They were right. I have some ideas on how to make it better, but since I have a policy of only writing forward, not backward, I’m going to have to wait until the end to take another stab at it (which might actually help me since a beginning is meant to hearken to the end).

    I agree that a story doesn’t have to begin with an explosion, but it should at least begin with a problem.

  • ShannonRaelynn

    I just don’t know enough about mole people. I’ll have to wait for your story.

    I get beginnings. Endings are my weakness. Maybe someday you could do a post with suggestions for a great ending?

    • ericjbaker

      I’ve been told by some that my endings tend to be ambiguous. I don’t view that as a problem, but I want people to feel satisfied by what they read, so I’m trying to find the balance. I’d rather imply something that come out and explain it.

      • ShannonRaelynn

        I need to learn greater subtlety. I’ll beat you over the head with it to make sure you get it. I don’t give my readers enough credit. I’m working on it and I am improving, but I hate being made to feel dumb as a reader so I over compensate to ensure my reader does not have this experience. It all part of the growing process, I guess.

        • ericjbaker

          I seem to have the opposite problem. I think my implications are clear, but people seldom pick up on the foreshadowing and metaphors. In the end, though, you just have to write the things you want to write. You can’t please everybody.

  • kdavisfanclub

    two words to state what is awesome about this post and what will have me read on and read more at any one time (though this was well written, thank you for sharing): Mole people!

  • Tuesday

    Mole people, eh? They do sound quite intriguing but I think I’m turned off by their large insect god. I don’t do well with giant bugs. Although I was completely okay with Godzilla vs. Mothra…so maybe if you started with the plane crashing on an island off the coast of Mexico where Godzilla is sunning…that would be cool.

  • Mole People Fan Fiction | ericjohnbaker

    […] ← Don’t Write Boring – Part II […]

  • Uzoma

    My goodness! I feel this post was composed for my sake.

    My WIP started with my main character preparing for a trip. The first group of people who read it said it was fine. So I continued writing only to be told by an editor recently to start where the story itself started. I only abided by this rule in my short stories, but now I realize it’s a general rule.

    Thanks for saving me other 99 beatings, Eric 😉

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