As I look back on my journey as a writer, I am always amazed at one thing; we all seem to come imprinted with how to write a bad book. Writing is like any other skill. We crawl before we walk, we walk before we run, we run before we can cross the finish line. Now, just the shear will it takes, the passion and drive to actually get the thing done is a major accomplishment. Most people who dream of being a writer, and surveys tell us there are LOTS, will never get that far. Why? Writing is hard. Yup, so if you have stars in your eyes, good you’ll need them. You’ll also need to be a little crazy and obsessiveness doesn’t hurt either. Writing is not fun-though there are moments of intense joy. But most of the time, life has a way of interrupting and if you heed the call despite all the distractions and negative self-talk, and get your first draft done, pat your self on the back!
But don’t submit that manuscript. Resist the challenge to think of your work as done. It’s only just begun. If you’re new to this thing called writing, craft will help fight your way out of the bad book. I recently took part in a national writing contest, and after results were posted, I was stunned to read how many new writers had submitted a first draft they barely edited or a NANOWRIMO project still being fleshed out from November. Let’s admit it. It’s exciting to finish a project, especially if this is your first novel-you might feel as if you’ve climbed a mountain, but I’m here to tell you, you’re only at Base Camp 1. The summit is still a long way off. So polish first, edit and re-edit till you can’t stand your story. If you can afford an editor, do it. Don’t have a writer’s group? You’re not serious.
I started writing novels at 16. Like most newbie’s learning and feeling my way, they were rambling and had no structure, (and were probably much more fun to write in my blissful ignorance). I loaded them first with Backstory. I had paragraph after paragraph of the protag’s physical description, and details of ball gowns and complex family trees because I thought it was my job to educate Reader. Throw as much in the opening that I could so no one would be in the dark-in short I stripped the story of any magic and took out a reason to turn the page. I agonized (for years) about what to show, what scene should be in, I wanted every little step the character took to be mapped out. I wanted a blow by blow and a play book for the Reader.
BACKSTORY = Anything in your character’s remote past or childhood. There are times when this is germane to the story, your job and your skill is to weave it in such a way Reader won’t feel drenched in sriracha sauce. Backstory is like a spice, too much, and we become bored. It needs to be dosed in just the right amount, like breadcrumbs or your writing will fail before it’s even out of the gate. But don’t add too little either, or we won’t know what the heck is going on. When you start your story, resist the urge to lay an infodump or tell everything that is in your head about the protag’s history. Do this experiment. It’s going to feel weird, you might even feel clammy and shaky, you won’t believe what I’m saying, but HOLD back. Writing coaches tell us that too much Backstory in the beginning is our way of “warming up” our story in our minds. Backstory when dumped at the beginning, pages and pages of it, is self-serving and adds no benefit, so that’s why we all crawl at the same pace when we learn to write. We think we need to hand the Reader a snapshot because poor Reader is incapable of putting pieces together. When in reality the opposite is true. Reader needs very little to go on. Imagination can do the job just fine.
Think of it like this; someone you’ve only spoken with on the phone. You may know her basic stats, blue eyes, red hair and voice, yet your mind will create a picture and when you meet, you will be shocked because she doesn’t look like what you pictured. When you unleash your story on the wold, if you’ve done backstory and character description right, Reader will form his/her own mental picture even though you’ve given them very little to go on. So don’t tell everything upfront. If you still feel you must, write away but cut off the first three chapters. Your writing will sail much more smoothly.
My writing improved markedly when I started trusting Reader. I didn’t need to show every step the character took to get from point A to point B. I knew Reader could fill in the blanks and that was what made the difference in my writing. Trust Reader and you’ll never go wrong. So keep the Backstory back where it belongs.