Sometimes, the worst advice to give a new writer is that there are rules to writing and the new writer must master these. Especially before attempting to break any of them. Not all writers are created equally. And, even seasoned authors have uneven talents. A newbie may find that they have mastered the ability to intrigue a reader through intimate details of the setting. At a small local writer’s retreat I listened to a first-timer read her piece describing a person’s possessions laid across a dresser. It drew me closer to the character who owned these item. I would have disagreed with any one that spouted the standard advice, “Don’t start a story with the description of a place.”
Another bit of advice that can be ignored, “Don’t include more than the briefest backstory at the beginning.” The flawed rationale for this rule is based on the idea that backstory stops forward momentum. There is no guarantee that a exciting first page will encourage me to to continue when the dribble of backstory keeps on interrupting the flow of the action. So, bring on the backstory at the very beginning and there’s no momentum to halt.
At a point in the past century, novels often started with the protagonist’s childhood or the family’s background. The reader would then know the main characters before the action started. So sometimes, this is an excellent tactic to create empathy for the main character. But, at other times it causes a book to drag. Each author must decide what works for their writing. Notice there is a similar construction to both of these rules. They start with don’t and only forbid an action rather than encouraging one.
Writing conventions change over time. If I follow a current one when beginning a lengthy novel, it may be passé by the time I finally get the piece published. It doesn’t hurt to know current grammar and usage rules. But even these do not have to be followed to a tee. Writers should use them as needed for clarity. Trying to keep track of additional fleeting trends and unnecessary rules while writing will only stifle creativity and productivity.
I recall a well-meaning reviewer striking out every single “that,” even ones that were necessary and also insisting on removing all passive tense verbs despite the lack of a better way to restate the sentence. In each case the bad advice was based on unnecessary rules. A few days later, I overheard one writer gripe to another about people currently not knowing how to write correctly. She referred to poor grammar and over-use of filler words. The second writer replied, “That may be a problem, but the lack of good content is far worse. You can always fix grammar and tighten up the language. You can’t fix the lack of content.”