Monday, March 15, 2010

Start with the action

Modern craft books stress that back story should be incorporated into the story--preferably after page 25. There is no need--and no market-- for paragraphs (or pages) about the heroine's childhood, or the hero's history.

For years, I didn't "get" it. Nora does it. So did Jane, and her first lines are used routinely on quiz shows. I thought of my first pages as a Lifetime Channel movie's opening credits montage: scenic, descriptive, hookbaiting.

That's another five dollar writing term: 'hook.' I've studied hook books. I know the opening sentence, the opening paragraph, the last sentence on page 1 are important. So is the end of every chapter.

I'm actually good at chapter endings. Just not page one. But I'm beginning to see light.

At yesterday's Talking Stick editorial board session, five of us voted up or down on over 200 submissions. Half were poetry. (Wait two weeks to ask what I think of prose poems.) The other half were short stories and essays. We were astounded at the number of entries where we voted to:
1. publish if the author agreed to delete the first page.
2. reject because the first 300 words were unnecessary.

We debated how much time it would take to write a "delete backstory" comment in our rejection letters. We wondered if people would take to heart this tip if we added to our submission guidelines for the 2011 edition.

We decided to reduce word counts. Creative non-fiction from 1200 to 800; fiction from 1500 to 1200.

It was outstanding how many essays were submitted under fiction--no doubt to circumvent the word count limit. (We weren't fooled--after the 5th one.)

The point of my rant is that every story or essay was stronger after a trim. And it was pretty easy to see where each needed to start--probably because I was not editing my own work.

Yesterday's judging elevated a prime directive to my frontal lobe: Start with the action.

It's all becoming clearer.



  1. Great advice.

    In its published form, my first book actually started where it had ended in an early draft. Luckily I have a great critique group to steer me in the right direction!

  2. Wow. That is a lot of material to toss. Or could you recycle some. It couldn't have all been backstory. Finding where the action really starts is key. You have obviously mastered that.

  3. Debra,
    Is your website