Yesterday, two things happened. (Okay, a lot of stuff happened - here are the things I want to talk about...) (1) I read on a blog - I can't recall which one - that you need to make your characters likable in the first chapter and reveal their flaws later. (2) I went to critique group.

I had a moment of panic about the first thing, because my main character S is not likable in the first chapter. She's not a monster or anything, but she's been put in a situation that she hates and she acts out against it by being mean to people who are nice to her. Several of the people in my critique group were concerned about how mean she was, in fact. But making S likable in the first chapter doesn't work for the story I'm going to tell. S cannot be happy or friendly or nice in the first chapter, because if she is, then I've got no story. So that piece of advice sucks.

What doesn't suck, though, is the second thing - my critique group. Because even though they were concerned about how mean S was being, they helped me see that there were things I could take out or put in that would mderate how mean she seemed to the readers. To the "outside world" in the novel, S would still look like a bitch, but the readers would understand that she was lonely and sad and upset and would feel for her a little, even while she was being mean. I already had some of that in there, but their perspective helped me achieve what I think is the right balance.

This is what I have learned about writing advice - it's all wrong some of the time. The question is knowing when.

For example, I went to a writing workshop this summer and had a critique of the first chapter of my novel. And one of the women in the group was all "your character has to have something at risk - maybe she could have a little sister." Yeah, no. That is, in no way, happening. But my policy about critique is to write down every suggestion people make and think about them a day later. And when I thought about that comment a day later I realized that the woman was right - not about the little sister, because, no - but about the need for my character to have something at stake. Of course, S does have something at stake or I wouldn't have gotten as far as a first draft, but I needed to make sure that the risk is upfront, that it's something the character and the reader feel. So her comment was both right and wrong.

That's the problem with writing - everyone has an idea of how it should be done and everyone is both right and wrong. Some people (like me) say "NO ADVERBS" and some people like them and use them well. Some people say your character has to be likeable right up front and some people think that's dumb. Some people say that the conflict has to be clear on the first page and some people think that's dumb.

The important part for me (which means the part that helps me get better as a writer) is to listen to all the advice. The hard part is to figure out which parts to ignore.

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