Sunday, May 7, 2017

Where To Start

Spring is typically contest season in the romance community. Nearly every RWA chapter runs a contest for unpublished authors to submit their work for consideration. I offered to judge a host of different contests this year, running the gamut of genres from YA to historical, fantasy and beyond, and selected the best of the bunch in each category I judged.

As icing on the cake, I attended a workshop last weekend where the first pages of the various authors in attendance were read and commented on by two literary agents and an industry speaker.

The results of my various critiques of the contest entries and the results of the panel last weekend were remarkably similar. It didn't matter if the work was science fiction, memoir, YA or traditional fiction, the overwhelming criticism was the book began in the wrong place. The author was trying to get all the backstory set in place, or 'walk the dog' by relaying every little thing going on in the scene instead of jumping in where the action started.

The best piece of advice about backstory I ever received was to pull out all the backstory and paste it on a page. Then, pretend the page was written on glass and drop it on the floor. As you pick up the splinters, use only that much at a time of the backstory and weave it into the storyline. Stephen King is even more succinct:

That's not to say backstory isn't important. Of course it is, and you, as an author, need to know what compelling forces happened to form your character, make them act and react in the way they do. But, as a reader, you don't want the whole story in the first chapter. Otherwise, why bother reading the rest of the book? The reader needs to develop a relationship with the character much the same way one does in person. You find out little nuggets of information about a person a bit at a time. 

So, my advice, as a result of all this passing of judgment, is to go back to the start of that manuscript you've been working on and look at it again. When does the action start? Have you written the first pages just to get your mindset in place about the character? If you answered yes to the second question, remove those pages and file them away in your character folder. Open with the action. I'm revising a work I started six months ago because, after sitting through one reading after another last weekend, I realized this particular work is guilty of the same thing. I start with description and backstory instead of getting right to the action. Which proves you're never too seasoned to learn something new. 

No comments:

Post a Comment