Being a writer, I’ve gone to seminars and conferences, read countless writing books and articles, and was given advice by real authors on how to make my books the best that they could be. I, at one time or another, believed what I was told, and altered some of my work to fit with “the right” criteria. That was a mistake. Here’s a list of five writing misconceptions that I was told to believe.
1. “You must begin your book with an exciting scene.”
I was once told that my book had to begin when everything is changing for my main character: “when their world is turned upside-down” so you can grab your reader’s attention. I found a few things wrong with this advice, the first being, if we all started our books the same way, they wouldn’t be special or unique. It would be pretty boring to read the same kind of introduction in every book you open, wouldn’t it? The second problem I saw was, if we began our story when the character’s world is turned upside down, how would we know what is normal for them? Without any background story on our character, how could we distinguish oddities from their ordinary life? We wouldn’t know their everyday standards. The reader must connect with the character before he or she can care or worry about what is going to happen to that main character. Creating a subtle backstory first can help the reader to recognize abnormal happenings from ordinary ones. Beginning your book with a calm opening about the character’s everyday life is absolutely fine; there are so many famous classics that begin with a simple scene, like Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess, and Sense and Sensibility. These authors didn’t follow the rule of the “dramatic opening scene” yet they have all have become enormously popular, selling a few million copies of their book!
2. Your book should contain 70% dialog.
A published author once told me that I didn’t have enough dialog in my books. I went on to learn that publishers sometimes determine your book’s success by the amount of white space on each page. Having a full page of dialog will provide more blank spaces than a full page of narrative, therefore, I was told that more “talking” is always best. So I decided to test out this theory and wrote a short book mainly full of dialog. It was choppy and not well explained, might I say. I couldn’t elaborate on descriptions or explain the surroundings without having someone speak it aloud. This idea of “lots of dialog” is a modern concept, so I can see how it would work for books taking place in the modern world, but if you enjoy writing historical fiction like I do, then this “all dialog” theory probably won’t work. It’s just not realistic.
3. Tell your reader instead of showing.
I’ve heard this one a few times. Some say that a writer should tell the reader about something, not show them, to keep the pace moving. I however, disagree. I find it much more interesting if I am actually shown something and not just told about it. The difference can have a lasting impact on the reader. Here is an example I made up:
Telling Version: “The boy told his dog to stay. The dog stayed.”
Showing Version: “He held out his thin little hand like a fireman stopping traffic as he slowly backed away from his fur-matted friend. Oh, how those four dirty paws wanted to bound across the space between them and gift the boy with a thousand slobbery kisses, but being the keen and obedient dog that he was, he planted his feet in the dewy grass and vowed to keep as motionless as the statue he had seen in the park.”
Both versions were each made up of only two sentences, telling the same story, yet they are both extremely different. Which one provided the most information? Which one would you be more likely to continue reading if it were the opening of a book? Which one do you find more interesting? Probably, the second one is the answer to all of these questions. The second version let us know that: the boys was small, the dog was scrawny, the dog loved the boy, the dog was obedient, it happened in the morning (dewy grass), and they take walks in the park together. The first version didn’t tell us any of that!
4. End each chapter with a cliffhanger.
Many say that to keep your readers flipping pages, you must create a cliffhanger at places where the reader is most likely to put the book down, like at the end of a chapter. I find that this strategy just isn’t realistic. Yes, cliffhangers are exciting and can add a bunch to your book, but one in every chapter is a bit excessive. Besides, if you have to bait your readers with a constant strand of dangerous and uncertain situations to stay seated and continue reading, it may not be a very interesting book in the first place.
5. Reading will make you a better writer.
Now, parts of this phrase are true. Reading other books can definitely help you with writing your own book. But when people give this advice, they forget to mention that it depends on what you read! If you read a lot of terrible books over time, you may find that you morph into having those same writing habits and write terribly! While at the same time, if you read many great books full of beautiful words and brilliant plots, your writing is more likely to improve. It is like that saying, “You are what you eat.” Instead it’s, “You are what you read.” If you want to write inspiring things, read inspiring things!
Bonus misconception: The publisher is always right.
This is quite far from the truth! Many people I’ve met dream of the day when their book is accepted for publication. When they get turned down, they revise their work to fit the publisher’s standards. Then if their book is accepted they allow the editors to change whatever they see fit, slap a generic unenticing cover on it, and ship it out. Sadly, this happens a lot and many just accept it because they want their book published. But the publisher is not always right and you shouldn’t have to be forced to alter your hard work to please someone in order to get published. You don’t have to submit to what publishers say, because they’re not always right!
Do you like to write fiction?
Were you ever told to believe one of these misconceptions?
Do you have any other writing myths or misconceptions to share?