Meretricious: 1. Apparently attractive, but having in reality no value or integrity. 2. Tawdrily and falsely attractive. 3. Superficially significant.

I could say that these definitions apply quite handily to the holiday that I’m steadfastly ignoring, but I’m not in the mood for a rant on false values or the mass mind. I’d much rather point out some of the meretricious advice that’s handed out to writers as if it were not just advice, but laws that carry severe penalties for their violation.

1. You must hook the reader with your very first sentence.

2. You must not annoy and slow down readers with prologues.

3. You must hire professionals, particularly for editing and book cover design.

4. You must have a professionally designed cover.

1. The hook. This is great advice if you write for people who read strictly for entertainment, who read a book once and throw it away. If that’s not you, then you’ll be just as glad to chase off people who can’t give a book at least a few paragraphs worth of their time to see how things are going to develop. That’s not to say that a flat, boring first sentence is acceptable, because flat, boring sentences aren’t a good thing anywhere in a novel. Neither are flat, boring paragraphs.

2. The Prologue. Repeat #1. But you will have to work harder to keep your reader wanting more. A prologue isn’t meant to be an info dump. There’s no excuse for info dumps anywhere in a novel. If it’s back story, it has to be fascinating on its own. But no matter how well-written or interesting it is, if it doesn’t eventually become perfectly clear why it’s there, then all you’ve done is waste your reader’s time.

3. The professionals. This bit of advice assumes that you’re incapable of learning much of anything. It also assumes that professionals have esoteric knowledge gained at the cost of blood and tears and that should be available only to those willing to offer up their  blood and tears.

4. The cover. Hark back to #3. Eye-catching, readable, uncluttered. Those are your goals. Workmanlike competence is perfectly acceptable. Why? Because 99% of your readers don’t care about anything else. Learn to use graphics tools, many of which are free. Study covers–lots of covers. Figure out why they do or don’t work for you. Design, refine, learn.

Finally, do bring in a second and even a third set of eyes that can see the problems you may not see. There are competent writers and designers all over the internet. You may even know some of them. Many of them are willing to do critiques and offer advice. For free. They are your teachers. Pay attention and learn.


2 thoughts on “Meretricious

  1. Thanks for challenging these “rules.” There are all kinds of different readers and all kinds of different writers and it’s nice to recognize that.

    How about this for a first sentence? “From a little after two oclock until almost seven of the long, still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that–a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summer because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller…”

    This is only THE FIRST HALF of the first sentence of one of my favorite books, “Absaslom, Absalom!” by William Faulkner. I love it (and Faulkner’s writing) because it breaks rules, capturing the reader through the music of the words, the headlong rush into the inside of the characters’ heads.

    Don’t even get me started on the professionals…

  2. That’s a lovely sentence. But it takes skill to carry off something that long and complex without losing the reader. And it certainly defies any rule about not making sentences too long and complex.

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