Monday, November 01, 2010

Where to Start

What I'm reading: Soul of a Highlander, by Melissa Mayhue

Lately, I've read a few books that were difficult to get into. One, I've abandoned, at least temporarily. Why? Back story and info dumping. The author spends chapter after chapter not only introducing each character, but also giving the reader that character's life history—or so it seems. While it's important for the reader to understand what motivates the character, spending the majority of each chapter 'telling' and not getting into the action of the story tries this reader's patience.

There's a delicate balance between introducing characters and bogging down the story either with back story or "action" that the reader doesn't understand, because they don't know who's who. It's one thing to open with an action scene; it's another to give the reader enough information to know who the good guys are, and why they should care about the outcome.

When I started writing, I was guilty of the common beginner's mistake of wanting my readers to understand who my character was, and make them "care" so that when I got to the "good stuff," they'd be hooked. Wrong. When dealing with back story, as I've said before, you have to ask yourself two questions:

One: Does the reader need to know this?
Two: Does the reader need to know this NOW?

And in the spirit of sharing, I'll reveal the original, unpublished (and I'm sure you'll be able to tell why) opening to what evolved into Finding Sarah. After reading it, you can read the final, published version here.

And note: even though the original version sucks like a vacuum cleaner, the information in it was necessary for ME, to get to know Sarah. So even if you know you're probably starting in the wrong place, don't be afraid to write it.

Sarah Tucker rotated her neck, trying to alleviate the stiffness brought on by too many hours of staring at her spreadsheets. Sunday afternoon had faded into evening. She massaged her temples in a futile attempt to banish the headache that had nagged her all day. But, she sighed with satisfaction, she had accounted for every dollar, and she would manage to pay her creditors and keep the shop open at least one more month.

She clicked "save" and powered off her computer. Every bit of electricity saved meant she could survive that much longer. She rose and leaned on her desk until a wave of dizziness passed. That's what she got for skipping breakfast and lunch.

Sarah went to the bathroom and splashed some cold water on her face. She stared into the mirror. "You look like hell," she said to her reflection. No amount of concealer would hide the dark circles under her red-rimmed eyes. Her chestnut hair had fallen victim to her do-it-yourself haircuts and hung in unruly tangles around her face. Her once healthy complexion was sallow, her face drawn.

She ignored the ringing of the phone in the bedroom. "Sarah. Pick up. I know you're there," came a familiar voice from the answering machine on table in the living room. "You can't hide forever."

"I'm not hiding" she shouted to the machine. "I'm ignoring you." She knew Chris meant well, but if she let him into her life, he'd want to take over. Although he would promise 'no strings,' Sarah knew she'd be attached to him with monofilament. She wasn't ready to think about Christopher Westmoreland and his need to be in control.

She and David had opened "That Special Something," the gift boutique she loved, soon after they were married. Going to work and surrounding herself with all the unique artwork had made each day a joy. In its second year, it had already begun to show a tidy profit. Then David had died, and nothing had been the same. The minor setbacks that she and David had taken in stride seemed to have become more and more frequent after his death, until she was looking at the last of her savings.

Sarah went into the kitchen and started boiling some water for her last remaining package of five-for-a-dollar ramen noodle soup. Tomorrow, she could get to the store and stock up on real food with the twenty dollars her hours of manipulating figures permitted. She hoped it would go as far in the grocery store as her spreadsheet said it had to.

She absolutely refused to 'borrow' money from the register at the store. That money was the bare minimum needed to open the shop each day. Even in this time of credit cards, people still spent cash, and she would never allow herself the embarrassment of not being able to make change and lose a sale.

She took some aspirin and carried her mug of steaming noodles into the bedroom. Not bothering to remove her sweats, she crawled into the security of her bed. She leaned against the wooden headboard, knees drawn to her chest, and wrapped the blue and gray comforter up around her. The warmth of the soup radiated through her body. The pressure behind her eyes eased. She savored the last sips of her dinner and set the mug on the nightstand.

Sarah felt hot tears forcing their way to the surface. She was not going to cry. Crying wouldn't help anything. She had finished crying for David three months ago. On the anniversary of his death, at his gravesite, she'd moved her wedding band from her left hand to her right. She took a deep breath and lay down on her side, feeling her body relax into the mattress. The tears returned, streaming down her face. Tears of guilt, of self pity, of grief? Or maybe anger. Sarah didn't care; she cried great gulping sobs until exhaustion overcame her and she slept.

A good night's sleep and a long hot shower brightened Sarah's mood the next morning. She pushed all thoughts of the past from her mind and set out for her shop, determined to have a productive day. She busied herself dusting the old bookcases, sideboards, armoires and desks that replaced conventional shelving, rearranging animal carvings, adjusting crystal to catch the light, moving a display of stationery. She reminded herself that Monday mornings were always slow and refused to let the lack of customers bother her. Easter was approaching, then Mother's Day would be here, and people would be flocking to her shop in droves to find that perfect gift. Well, maybe not droves; she'd settle for a trickle right now.

Tomorrow my guest is author Carolyn Schriber, with her take on the facts of fiction.


Brenna Lyons said...

LOL! Newbie mistake indeed! I know precisely what you mean.

Actually, I share the first TWO attempts at an opening scene for PROPHECY at
The final version is at


Terry Odell said...

Brenna - thanks for sharing. It's like standing naked on Main Street, isn't it. And believe me, I have LOTS of "failed" attempts when I started this book, which began as a writing exercise.

Carol Kilgore said...

Sometimes we just have to write it to get it out of our systems so we know where we're going with the real story.

Stacey Joy Netzel said...

Boy do I know the feeling. My first manuscript, still unpublished, had 65 PAGES of backstory. LOL It was also 239,000 words long. I did some major trimming but at some point moved on. Maybe someday...

Loved the revised version of Finding Sarah.

Rebecca Zanetti said...

Great post, Terry! I have several "first beginnings" hidden away in a file--to never see the light of day again. :)

Terry Odell said...

Carol - most definitely. On the advice of the late mystery author, Barbara Parker, I wrote the prologue to Finding Sarah so I could internalize her character. (It's at Smashwords as a free read)

Stacey - Sarah topped out at about 143,000 and was published at under 90K, I think.

Rebecca - sometimes I drag out those old works just to prove that I AM getting better at the craft.

Sheila Deeth said...

I've read a few books recently with too much backstory. Reading one now that's third in a trilogy and wondering how previously and presently might be better balanced. Your two questions are just perfect.

Leigh D'Ansey said...

Thanks for this, Terry. Gives me confidence to just keep banging away at the keyboard so I get the story down then go back and give it life.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

We're so eager to have readers understand the characters quickly that it's easy to dump a bunch of info on them! Great before and after here, Terry. :)

Terry Odell said...

Sheila - it's definitely more of a challenge in connected books or series. But you never want to bore the reader.

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth - thanks (but I don't think the 'before' was particularly great--except as an example of what NOT to do.

Terry Odell said...

Leigh - you can't fix a blank page, so keep banging away.

Janice Seagraves said...

Terry, your excerpt as you said did do one thing--helped you get to know your character. And then you revise the hell out of it, lol.


Annabelle Ambrosio said...

Good topic. I once started to read a published story that began with five pages of backstory. I couldn't finish it.

Kathy said...

Great post Terry funny how we try to make our characters appealing and end up making them boring to the readers. I have revised my opening a couple of times and I probably will again. Isn't the first draft or so about getting it down? Trying to understand where the characters belong and what they want along with who they are is part of it right? I'm not a plotter I can't sit down and plot it all out and if I start fixing things at the beginning I never reach the end. SO for the current thing I've been working on I'm not going back and fixing things until I type the end. I figure then I can go back and fix and revise once more ;-)

Terry Odell said...

Janice, yes the first draft of the first chapter (or five chapters) is more likely for the author, not the reader.

Anabelle - I've set a book like that aside. I used to finish everything I started, but I'm getting more picky as I age.

Kathy - it's all about revisions, isn't it! I 'fix' as I go, but don't demand perfection until I get to The End; then I go through it again.

Lynnette Hallberg said...

Thanks for this. It always helps to see that we're not alone in our "mistakes", that someone else has been here, done this, too.

Terry Odell said...

Lynette - BTDT too many times to count, and expect that there will be many more.