Back in 2007 I finished my first novel, a time-travel romance set (mostly) in the Smoky Mountains. It’s pretty bad.
I was so excited when I finished it–and I should have been. I’d just written a book. That’s a cause worth celebrating. What I shouldn’t have done, however, was submit it to agents. But I did. I’ve lost count now of how many agents I queried, but I remember only a couple asked to see additional pages. It went nowhere other than into a drawer. Did I mention it was bad?
I thought it would be interesting to dig it out and take a look at it as an editor. Then I thought it would be interesting to share with you the problems I see with it and how I would recommend fixing them if a client had submitted this book to me.
I don’t know how many blog entries it will take to do this, but welcome to the first one.
My book opened with this stellar introduction:
What if I jumped? she thought vaguely, knowing she wasn’t that desperate, half-wishing she was.
With her forehead pressed against the glass, Emma stared down at the traffic passing below her, in front of the Tribune. When she first moved to Chicago four years ago, the pace of the city frightened her, although she worked hard to hide those feelings. Now she simply swam in the current. Or am I drowning in it? she wondered.
I literally cringed as I read this.
First, I’m opening with my main character (MC) thinking. Sigh. That’s not good. When your MC is sitting, lying, running, driving–whatever–and THINKING at the opening of the book, she’s not doing anything, even if she’s running or driving at the same time. The focus isn’t on the action. The focus is on the INACTION of her thoughts. B-O-R-I-N-G. I seriously can’t believe many agents read beyond those first two paragraphs.
Second, I’ve already dumped a little bit of backstory into this opening: “When she first moved to Chicago four years ago, …” Although it’s not a torrential backstory dump, I believe it could have been handled in a much more active way, maybe in a conversation with another character: “Hey, Emma, you’ve grown a lot in these last four years. Give yourself a break!” Something like that (but better). See the difference?
Backstory dumps are common in first drafts. Period. New writers and experienced writers do it a lot because oftentimes you’re working the story out in the first draft, you’re figuring out who your characters are, where they came from, etc. So backstory dumps happen.
(In case you’re wondering, “backstory dump” refers to a long, drawn-out description of past events from the MC’s life that the writer believes the reader HAS to know in order to understand and enjoy the book. They are almost always a bad idea. The info provided in the backstory dump can usually be provided much more elegantly, much more smoothly as the story progresses through conversations and other devices later in the story. In addition, the reader often does NOT need that info. The writer needs it because it informs the character and the character’s development. The reader? Not so much.)
Check out this backstory dump from the first page of my book (this came right after the paragraphs I included above):
The internship she had landed in the metro department was one of the most coveted positions sought by aspiring print journalists. The competition had been fierce, and she had wanted to give the impression from day one that she was the right person for the job. There would be no visible weakness, no hesitation to take any assignment. The internship had opened a door for her, and she had been determined it would not close in her face after the year was up. She had told herself she would become a permanent employee at this paper. She was wrong.
After ten months into her internship, she had managed to write thirteen front-page stories, a feat nearly unequaled by a fledgling writer at the Tribune. Her success was due largely to her ability to garner people’s trust and break down the barriers they normally drew up when speaking to the press. It wasn’t that everyone liked Emma, because they didn’t. But she had been building a reputation of being honest, thorough, fair and persistent. Little else could be asked of a reporter.
I can’t tell you how hard it is to share this with you because it’s SO BAD! But I hope that in sharing it and talking about it, I’ll be able to help you learn from my mistakes.
Nothing happens in this opening. My MC is thinking. Wow. That’s exciting. NOT!
I dumped a bunch of backstory into the opening. Who cares right now about the internship, about how hard it was to get and how well she had done? I’m telling my reader instead of showing my reader how successful my MC was, how talented she was. I should have figured out a way to show that. And, actually, I did. I few pages in. I should have started there.
We’ll talk about that next time. Learn from my mistakes, please:
- Don’t start with your MC thinking or dreaming. Ick.
- Don’t tell. Show.
- Don’t dump a bunch of backstory into your opening.
When you’re ready for me to dissect your book like I’m dissecting mine, please send me an email at email@example.com. (I’ll be kinder discussing your issues than I was here discussing mine. I promise. My knife will be sharp, but not my tongue.)
Until then, happy writing!