This year, 2015, I’m an MG Pitch Wars mentor. I’m having a
ball! From writing my ‘Why choose me?’ blog post, to receiving 64 submissions,
to the headache of picking my mentee, to the surprise thrills of being able to
pick two mentees, to now working with my gorgeous new friends for life (Stacey and Judy) on
revising their manuscripts ready for the agent round in November. Major fun.
And I can only thank Brenda Drake over and over for inviting me to join the
gang. I’m privileged, and will work my socks and knickers off to ensure my
mentees receive a bunch of agent hugs in just over a month’s time.
But, having read through all the first chapters sent to me
by an incredibly talented group of writers, there was a recurring issue that
appeared time and again. And the same problem I see come up in the manuscripts
I edit in my day job. It all boils down to the book starting in the wrong
place, which of course affects that all important hook, the pull, the magnetism
that makes a reader want to keep going, turning the pages and finding out
what’s going to happen. I’m not kidding here when I add, this problem is so
Honestly, more often than not, in my Pitch Wars submissions,
simply deleting the first two or three pages, and sometimes the first few
paragraphs, was really all the author needed to do. It is an issue all writers
have, not just newbies, but seasoned writers too, and you only need to check
out posts and articles littering the internet to know how true this is. We, the
story tellers, want our readers to understand the whys of our characters, and
to do that we’re convinced we need to get the back story across as soon as
Wrong. We don’t.
Most readers want in first; they want a taste of the action,
of the tension; they want subtlety and clues; they want to be intrigued; they
want to be thrown bam! straight into that life-changing moment of the main
character, and the whole point of us, the authors, writing the story.
Back story is important and needs to be included, but not in
paragraph after paragraph of distant narrative, or a character unrealistically
and far too conveniently thinking about their lives to date. I’m afraid it’s
downright boring. If you have books on shelves or a manuscript in the slush
piles, boring isn’t a faux pas you can afford.
And this goes for the rest of the book, not just the first
chapter. It’s absolutely fine to do this in earlier drafts, in fact, as an
editor and writer, I would encourage you do to this. For one, it gets it out of
your brain and allows you, the creator of this character’s past, to ‘see’ it and
iron out any inconsistencies, rather than have it cooped up in your mind. I
also encourage authors to complete biographies or character profile sheets for
everyone in the book for the same reason. Plus, this is a separate document you
can refer to as you write.
Once that first draft is finished, work through your
manuscript with a brightly coloured pen (real or virtual) and highlight the
back story. Then decide if it really really needs to be there. If it does,
don’t just tell the reader or have the character once again conveniently consider
it, blend something in subtly. A clue, a snippet, a cheeky insight. Don’t put
the whole chocolate mud cake in front of the reader on page one, just smear a
little ganache here and there. Make their eyes light up, make them lick their
lips, make them drool. ‘Ooo, chocolate cake. Must turn page. Must find cake.’
Get the picture?
DON’T DO THIS
‘Just two years’ ago, John’s heart had been broken. Carol,
his girlfriend of five years, his childhood sweetheart, had dumped him. Packed
her bags and left for a younger model. He knew it was coming, but was too
nervous to mention it. He didn’t want to lose her. He didn’t want to be alone.
John spent many weeks and months afterwards staring at the
TV screen, neither watching whatever was on nor thinking of anything in
particular. He’d been emptied out of all thought, all emotion.
So when he met Liz, six months’ ago, he was wary. Cautious.
Afraid to ever feel that way again.’
‘John breathed in deeply, trying to push aside the
tightening of his stomach. This was all a bit too familiar. The iPhone in her
hand. The stupid grin on her face. Only this time it was Liz, not Carol.
He released the breath slowly through his nostrils. Should
he say something? Or sit there, on the same couch just like last time, and wait
for the break up to happen? Could he deal with that pain again? Probably not.
John opened his mouth, but all that came out was a strange
squeak that he quickly disguised as a cough.
Liz looked up and frowned. John smiled and averted his gaze
quickly back to the TV screen.’
The second excerpt puts the reader in the scene. They see
John, his shyness, his nerves, his worry. They’re introduced to his previous
heartbreak. In the first, they’re being told this through a back story dumping,
unable to engage fully with any action. I know which I prefer, and I know which
would make me keep reading. The second. Is Liz about to dump him? Will John
build up the confidence to ask who she’s texting? Let’s keep reading and find
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