This year I judged for the GOLDEN HEART contest for the first time. In case you aren't familiar with this contest, it's put on by RWA National and is a significant springboard toward publication for many new authors. I entered once before I was published (and did not fare well--I was still in my "head-hopping" phase!)
When I read the entries this year, I kept seeing the same mistake. FRONT-LOADING BACKSTORY.
When an author starts writing, she has to know what happened before the story begins. Face it, we're all a product of the things that happen to us, the company we keep (and the books we read,which is still sort of the company we keep!) So are our characters. When I'm creating a character, I have to know what happened to him when he was six. I need to watch my heroine tell a fib when she's 12 and suffer for it. Or get away with it and adopt habitual lying as a coping mechanism. He's afraid of bees. She doesn't like dark rooms. He led his polo team to victory. She defeated the school chess champ. We writers get to know all these fun things about our character and how these events shaped them, BUT we can't tell everything we know.
Certainly not in the first chapter.
The goal in crafting prose is to gently tease your reader forward, not swat them across the face with an information dump. As I write this, I'm preaching to myself as well. I'm in that very delicate time with my new project--trying to find the right place to start.
I'm on my 3rd try.
But eventually, I'll hit the right balance of forward motion and information hooks that will draw my reader in. And I'll scour it ruthlessly for too much backstory.
Mark Twain said it best: "A successful book is not made of what's in it, but what is left out of it."
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