Good Morning. Now that things have settled down in my real world life (which they haven't, I'm just sparing you from the gory details of the melodrama that has plagued/is still plaguing me) I've gone back to working on THE CAPTAIN'S LADY. (Which is quite interesting as I went to label this post, I noticed I did not have anything about him so I guess I've never told you about him before. Hmmmm...)
Anyway, Captain Richard Gaines is my latest hero and Russell Crowe is my inspiration if you will. Richard was the Captain of a 74 gun Ship of the Line for the Royal Navy. After the Battle of Trafalgar, he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress and resigned his commission. I could go on and on about him but I won't. It's all backstory.
Here's the kicker. I have three chapters written. New chapters. I couldn't use anything from the first version of the book I wrote about 7 years ago. Way too much purple prose. Lots of naval gazing (pun intended) and far too much backstory. Far too much.
Now, one of the ladies at the school is a voracious reader and when she found out I was an author bought four of my books before I could say jack rabbit. Now because of that, I decided to send her all the others that she hadn't read. (The least I could do for such a fan. Money is nice, but it's not all about that for me.)
Once she finished all of them (in about a week -- I told you she was voracious) she begged me for something else. I told her I was working on Richard's story, but that it wouldn't be ready until around Thanksgiving (HA!) She told me to hurry up and write it.
Last Friday I decided to ask her if she would read the first three chapters for me. She said she'd be honored. (Make me blush.) And then she asked why. Why did I want her to read them? And I said, "To see if there's too much backstory up front. I need to know if the story is working, and if it compels you to move forward." And she said, "Backstory? What's that?"
So I explained to her what backstory was and she said, "Oh, that. I never knew what it was called. I just thought that's how writer's write. How they explain who the person is and why they do the things they do." Then she cocked her head and gave me a funny expression. "Why do you think there would be too much? Aren't we supposed to know what motivates the characters?"
Barring a long and boring conversation about the mechanics of writing, I just said, "Well, the writing rules imply that too much backstory in the beginning is no good for a book. It doesn't keep the reader interested."
And she said (are you ready for this) "Who gave you those rules? I read all the time, and I like to know who the character is and what he's going to do right from the get-go. If I get to chapter 10 and find some little thing that I should have known from the beginning, it throws me off. I like to know why the character is the way he is right from the start. That way I know if he's going to be able to handle what gets thrown at him in the middle and if he'll actually make it to the end."
Having read craft books for all these years, and listened to agents and editors, publishers and other writers alike, they all say the same thing -- Never start your novel with backstory, always seed it in. But here, in the school lobby in the middle of a Friday afternoon, I hear that a reader likes to know what's happened to the character right from the beginning. How hearing about the character's past leads her further into the story than finding out about it in the middle.
So what's a poor writer to do? Ignore the rules and info dump? Seed in the backstory? Yeah, I know, these questions can lead a writer to go absolutely nuts. Tear a novel apart seven ways to Sunday for one editor and then put it all back together for another. Keep us up at night, talk to ourselves in the grocery store, and have random conversations with strangers on a bus.
What I think, and what I've always done, is just to write the book the way I want to write it. I want to write what I want to read and if that means loading up page one with backstory, that's what I'm going to do. Those old writing rules don't apply that much anymore in this new publishing world. I'm self-published and don't have to listen to anyone but the readers. If they like my stories, then they're better judges of what I write than any agent or editor. If my books continue to sell then I guess I'm doing something right? Right?
(And yes, I do maintain most of the writing rules. At least I know them and when I break them, I know why.)
Tell me -- What's your position on backstory? Do you seed it in? Do you info dump at the beginning? Do you even care about the "writing rules" anymore?
Anne Gallagher (c) 2013