The Write Way: All Those Things That Happen Before the Book Begins

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Galen McGee, peakdefinition.com

This week was a milestone in my career.  I turned in One Mountain Away, which is the first in the Goddesses Anonymous series set in Asheville, North Carolina.   Wherever you live, I’m sure you heard the cheers.

One Mountain Away is scheduled to come out in August of 2012, and while I’ve yet to see a cover, I hope my publisher will use some of the area’s gorgeous scenery, a sample of which you see here, photographed by my favorite photographer (and son) Galen McGee of Peak Definition, in Asheville.

Some books are easier to write than others.  How easy, how hard, never seem to make a difference in the way the book is viewed by readers or reviewers.  Some of the hardest books look effortless.  Nobody engrossed in the novel knows how much the author agonized over the best way to portray a character or present the central conflict.  Other books, which look difficult on the surface, may not have been.  Quite possibly the author went into the book certain she knew exactly what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it.  And while it’s unlikely the author never deviated, it does happen.  Some books just seem to be channeled from above, counterweights to the ones that are eked from the earth below, one miserable word at a time.

One Mountain Away was one of the latter.  I knew so much about the story up front.  I understood characters, motivation, story arc, setting and how it played into my chapters.  I knew what I wanted to tackle and what I wanted to stay away from.   I was missing some crucial bits, though.  The hardest decision was the best way to incorporate back story.

Back story refers to all those things that happened before the reader opened the book.  It’s the novelist’s job to decide what’s important for the reader to know and what isn’t.  Next Friday I’ll tackle ways to include back story.  But the first order of business is deciding if the information is necessary in the first place.

Sometimes back story’s clearly superfluous.  Let’s say a woman mistakenly receives a letter meant for a stranger.  She opens it and learns something interesting that she begins to investigate.  What do we need to know about her?  Very little.  Who she was before the story began is relatively unimportant.  The letter has nothing to do with her previous life.  Maybe there’s a subplot that needs a touch of back story, an ex-boyfriend trying to win her back, a job she hates, but that’s easily explained in a sentence or two before the book moves forward.

But what if back story connects in some important way to the story at hand?  If her investigations take her back to her own past, say she’s investigating a hit and run accident; the driver was under the influence, and she comes from a family with substance abuse problems, then yes, her past could be important.  The past might provide motivation to investigate.  Or the case at hand might finally help her deal with her own past.

Or what if she believes the letter was meant for a stranger, only that isn’t really true? What if the letter’s part of a scheme to involve her in the present situation because of something she’s done?

Including back story without annoying the reader who yearns to move forward, is difficult, so it has to be important.  My rule of thumb?   If back story is needed to explain vital aspects of a character’s personality (fears, actions, loves, hates, etc.) then include what you must.  If back story enlightens the reader about motivation, include.  If back story sets up important plot points?  Include.

Don’t include back story simply because it’s interesting or dramatic.  A pinch here and there, perhaps, as it pertains to the story at hand, but that’s all.  No matter how interesting you’ve made it for your own purposes, if back story isn’t completely relevant to the present story, it’s distracting. 

If you must tell that story, the one I’m advising you not to include, why not simply make the back story your novel?  After all, maybe that’s the story you’ve yearned to tell all along.

3 Responses to “The Write Way: All Those Things That Happen Before the Book Begins”

  1. [...] Last Friday I defined back story as “all those things that happened before the book begins.”  I speculated there are three instances when including back story might be important. [...]

  2. Lynn Ross - Toledo says:

    Emilie, Galen’s photograph is outstanding. What talent! I know you are proud of him. I enjoy reading about “The Write Way.” Thank you for sharing with us. You are great!

  3. Thx, Lynn. We are proud of him.

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