Since I’ve joined the online writing community, I’ve noticed clumps of advice that come in waves, the latest of which is “start with action,” meaning, of course, to start your novel with some sort of action-related event. This is good advice, so long as the action doesn’t involve anyone waking up, you avoid all tropes, and entertain no backstory in those first pages.
That leaves running, jumping, slamming doors and other acts that are quite meaningless without context. However, so many aspiring writers followed the “start with action” mantra, experienced editors, agents, and writers soon began writing blog posts to elaborate on the advice and say that context must accompany action.
My own editor, whose suggestions I generally treat with the same reverence as people give to religious creeds, suggested that I move an action sequence to the beginning of my novel. I gave her advice deep consideration and compromised by moving some of the earlier exposition and description to other places in the first chapter. This relocated the sequence she liked closer to the opening, but I did not open with that particular sequence, because it moved the story too fast.
I evaluated her advice first against my genre, and the horror authors I admire: M.R. James, Edgar Allan Poe, Ramsey Campbell, Lisa Mannetti, Robert Dunbar, Sarah Waters (there are many more, but I have to stop somewhere). They don’t start with slamming doors or gutted teenagers; that’s for Friday the Thirteenth/Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Cheap thrills.
These authors create a mood in those first pages. They acclimate the reader to a dark setting and give the reader time to absorb the environment. The tension inexorably rises throughout the novel until the climax. They use cheap thrills sparingly, focusing instead on crafting the atmosphere of the novel.
Then I evaluated her advice against my story. I move into the action of my novel quickly. However, those first paragraphs are vital in entrenching my reader both in Woerld and in Lucian’s mind-set. If you don’t fully understand where he is and why he feels his despair so acutely, you will not understand his actions several pages later.
I’m not saying that starting a novel with action is a bad idea, nor am I saying that writers should discount every wave of writing advice. What I am saying is this: whenever writing advice comes flying through Twitter or other blogs, don’t immediately jump on the bandwagon. Evaluate the advice against your against your genre, then against your story. Then rewrite, if necessary.
So how do you evaluate the tons of writing advice flying through cyber-space? Do you immediately re-write your opening to conform to the latest trend or do you consider the advice against genre and story?