Thursday, June 6, 2013

Bad Writing Advice, Part III: Mirror, Mirror

Last night I participated in a chat on Twitter. This was a good thing for at least two reasons: 1.) there was lots of lively, if compressed, conversation; and 2.) it proves that I've mastered how to use hashtags.

But anyway, we were discussing beginnings in YA novels, and inevitably the subject of what NOT to do in the beginning of a novel came up. And equally inevitably, someone dropped the "never start with a character waking up" rule.

As I've discussed in another post, the problem with this particular "thou shalt not" is that lots of successful novels violate it. If it were really an ironclad rule--like, "never squash your head under a pneumatic press"--then we wouldn't see people ignoring it and living to tell the tale.

But it's not a rule; it's a preference, and that's very much not the same thing.

When I pointed this out, another Tweeter argued that you should only break the "no waking up" rule if you have a very good reason to do so.

I couldn't agree more. But then, you should never do anything in writing unless you have a very good reason to do so. Thus, once again, we're not talking about rules versus non-rules; we're not saying "no waking up" is a rule that can be broken only under the right circumstances while, say, "no character putting his head in a pneumatic press" is a non-rule that anyone can ignore with impunity. If you have a character put his head in a pneumatic press, you'd better have a good reason for it, just as you'd better have a good reason for inserting a conga line of elephants dressed like Groucho Marx.

Do you see what I'm getting at here? Writing doesn't have rules the same way reality does.  It has parameters and possibilities, and anything is possible within the right parameters.

Which brings me to another supposed "rule," one that came up last night as well: "no first-person narrator describing her or his reflection in a mirror." There's what we might call the "soft" version of this rule, which says never to do so in the opening chapter, and the "hard" version, which says never to do it anywhere, ever, for any reason, under pain of death.

But the problem with this "rule," again, is that it's violated on a regular basis by published authors. For example, I find the following passage in Margaret Stohl's quite well-written and successful YA book Icons:

I watch my reflection in the window. My brown hair is dark and loose and matted with dirt and bile. My skin is pale and barely covers the handful of small bones that are me.

Nice writing, nice description, nice moment.  Nice mirror.

Plenty of books, YA or otherwise, have the first-person narrator engage in mirror-gazing. Gennifer Albin's Crewel does. Leah Bardugo's Shadow and Bone does. Elsie Chapman's Dualed does.  It's a common technique for the very reason that it's consistent with the reality readers know: one of the few available ways in which we can see ourselves is by looking into some reflective substance, whether that be a mirror, a window, a pool of water, our lover's eyes, or the blade of a knife. Especially when you take photography out of the equation--which many YA fantasies do--how else are you supposed to see yourself?

I'm not being naive here. I know that too many inexperienced writers have their first-person narrators looking into mirrors because they don't know what else to do, and somehow this convention has slipped into their minds as a good thing to have first-person narrators doing. I'm not defending every instance of first-person-narrator-mirror-gazing that's ever been written. Some of these instances are no doubt poorly written, poorly thought out, poorly motivated.

But many are not. Many are brilliantly written, cleverly thought out, ingeniously motivated. And thus they're fine. They're exactly right. They belong.

In writing, each beginning, each scene, each word needs to find its own rightness, its own reason for existence. If it can do that, keep it. If it can't, lose it.

But let's put an end to punitive novel-gazing. Let's put an end to the literary correctness police. Let's put an end to writing "rules," when we all know they were made to be broken.


  1. "Literary correctness police" Ha! Love it.

    I'm really enjoying this series! I've used the mirror description as well WITHOUT SHAME. I haven't even given it much thought because, frankly, I've grown tired of this so-called rules that contradict themselves in every other book.

    When I read "mirror-mirror" I thought you were going to talk about how writers sometimes "project" the critiques they receive on other writers. For example, if someone tells them their heroine is passive, then they look for that trait in another writer's work. I know, because this has happened to me! (I've done it to others and have had it done to me). Have you experienced this phenomenon?

    1. Hi Lorena,

      Thanks for the comment! I totally agree with you that we tend to project critiques onto others--I guess as a way of feeling better about ourselves! I know when I got some negative feedback initially about SURVIVAL COLONY NINE, I went around identifying the same weaknesses in other, published books, almost so I could say, "See! My writing's not so bad!"

      All I can conclude from this is that writers (like most people) are very insecure, and though we know that criticism is a part of the process, we still have trouble handling it!