More Writing Advice (Remember: You Get what You Pay For)

Stories. Some writers don’t know when to start their stories and offer pages of irrelevant background before getting to the story. While I can’t speak for every reader on the planet, I don’t think most people want to dredge through 30 pages of preliminaries before learning why and what they’re reading. Humans are hunters and unless something is moving along that horizon, they’re likely to look away.

There’s even a fancy term for this; in medias res, which means starting the story in the middle of the action.

This advice is irrelevant if you happen to be Proust in which case you can write 200 pages or more about the lace curtains on your grandmother’s windows.

19 thoughts on “More Writing Advice (Remember: You Get what You Pay For)

  1. For me, the master of “medias res” is Lee Child (Jack Recher). In his book “Killing Floor” the action begins with sentence #1. At the end of the first page you have to reach for your heart medication and on page 3 I said to myself: “Slow down man, the book still has 500 pages to go”. Unbelievable. Yes, I put aside books that take 20-30 pages to get my attention. Why bother?

  2. Oh, definitely agreed. Unless you can write a lead-in dialogue that’s interesting in itself.
    “You knew when you took up with her she was a blabbermouth. I can’t understand why you would have trusted her with that information. Now you know exactly what she’ll do, don’t you.”

    • It is a difficult thing to write. The one place where it will always have a place is opening a 2nd, 3rd, etc. book in a series. Sometimes it’s just an advertisement that the write has no faith in his/her story. That’s just sad. I feel sorry for those writers (and their stories).

      • Pretty much the standard women’s fiction in our day is to open with the daughter/ niece/ granddaughter/ long-lost whoever finding out she’s just inherited an inn, antique shop, a bookshop, cafe, newspaper, run-down cottage, etc.

        • That’s a genre I don’t read. I learned a lot when my historical novels and I went to the Historical Novel Society Convention a few years ago. I learned I was at the wrong place 🙂 Most historical fiction crosses over into women’s literature and I don’t write that. BUT there are so many reasons to write a story and so many different potential audiences it’s OK with me. Lots of people read for escape which is lovely, really.

          I seldom read fiction any more. I like history and stories of real adventurers. Women’s literature is finite — which is its charm for its audience — and history and adventure are not.

          • “Most historical fiction crosses over into women’s literature” and a lot of modern writers seem to have so little sense of the social feel and morals of the era they’re describing. Pre-1960 is whole ‘nother era; it’s hard for a born-in-1980 writer to grasp how very different attitudes were when I was a kid. And that varies: i.e., Bible-belt prairies or post-war London. The thinking of church-attenders has changed tremendously. So we fiction writers need to read non-fiction to paint the background for us.
            I’ve a book you’d love! A thirteen-year-old Ontario farm girl decided to keep a diary for a year, beginning on her birthday in March 1899.

            • I think most of all writers of historical fiction need to do good research but also remember that those people were PEOPLE, not cardboard cutouts about whom we “modern” people make judgments from the moral high-horse of our historical moment. One thing really bugs me about modern attitudes is we judge without understanding who they were and because of that, we make the same mistakes. We’re arrogant in the face of history. We don’t ask, “What did they REALLY do? What were their motives based on their beliefs? Who WERE they?”

              It’s easy to do that even in our own family. We believe what we’re told. Most of my aunts were born in a log/sod house on the high prairie of south/central Montana. But my mom and her sisters always joked saying it was the birth place of ONE of their sisters, the one who was ashamed of having been born there. I believed them, that Pat was born there, only Pat. It was only recently when I looked at some family photos and realized where my 2 year old mom was standing that I understood that SHE was born there, too. That’s exactly how we get history wrong.

              And the term “Anabaptist.” The early “Anabaptists” didn’t call themselves that. OTHERS did. There were so many sects, so many ways (suddenly) of relating to God. How absolutely bizarre and chaotic that must have felt to people in the 16th century and wonderful — but WE get “Martin Luther was the be-all and end-all of the Protestant Reformation.” No. Historical reality is wonderful (just like ours). I think anyone who writes historical fiction needs to be humble and curious.

              Sorry. I can write about this all day…

              • And I get that, being fascinated with history myself.
                “Understanding who they” were means understanding the prejudices, the ignorance, the superstitions. And we’re not there. we haven’t the complete cluelessness.
                I was amused to read how the common people rejected this odd tuber brought back from the new world, so the one who first thought potatoes would be a good food source and wanted people to try them put armed guards around his potato patch all day. At night people –who thought they must be valuable things — came and stole them. He understood his neighbors. 🙂

                • I think we are also completely clueless. There is a LOT of forgotten knowledge, stuff they knew that we no longer know — just in a generation. I can’t do what my mom did every day growing up on the farm. Even a farmer today might not be able to.

                  And, we are equally suspicious of the unfamiliar. That’s a human trait. I think over the course of time only a few people form the things that lead to human progress. We are dragged along by them.

                  Our biases about things in the past lead us not to understand the motives of people in other times. One really good example is leprosy. Contemporary people have the idea that the “other” is marginalized. A whole historical theory developed around the idea that European lepers in medieval times were outcasts. They weren’t. Science has proved that. This false narrative was based on the incredible number of leper communities built in Europe between the 11 and 14 century. “Wow there must have been a lot of lepers locked up in these communities!” The realities behind the numerous communities was 1) salvation, 2) creating buffer zones between feuding lords. One thing the offending historians did not do was read the literature of the time including charters and contracts. Paleohistorians, digging into graves, made the first discovery about the actual situation of lepers in medieval Europe. It was never an epidemic. The Crusaders brought it back with them from the Holy Land. It wasn’t very contagious etc etc.

                  I am sure there is a LOT more of that in our “knowledge.”

                  • Somewhat agree with the first two thoughts. We may understand the reason WHY, but have forgotten the simple HOW. I don’t know enough about leprosy in European history, but those facts are interesting.
                    Seems to me the common people pre-1400 had their roles fixed in this world, no advancement possible, and their goal was day-to-day survival, with some humor & entertainment thrown in — stuff we’d frown on now like public combat & executions. (Bloodthirsty bunch! Today we have movies.)
                    Just read about the Catholic expansion in England and how people were taught that doing good to others would gain them points in the next life. It was the elite, the “Well-born” who bribed, schemed and warred with hopes of gain.

  3. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – opening sentence of 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I think he started at the end of the action.

    • Technicality. That’s definitely action. Buendia is facing a firing squad! It’s not about time; it’s about action. What a perfect beginning to that mysterious and dream-like book.
      This guy was really good at it and the story begins with a preface!

      Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

      The Snows of Kilimanjaro

      THE MARVELLOUS THING IS THAT IT’S painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
      “Is it really?”
      “Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odor though. That must bother you.” “Don’t! Please don’t.”
      “Look at them,” he said. “Now is it sight or is it scent that brings them like that?”
      The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick-moving shadows as they passed.

  4. I commented before but that too has passed away… This iteration is all about the comments! Fascinating! I’m enjoying the discussion of historical fiction more than I have a right to…

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