Monday, November 24, 2008

The Big, Bad Editor's List Of Pet Peeves

I have a lot of pet peeves. I plan to highlight the big ones for the next week in this blog. The rest I’m willing to work with to find a viable compromise between the author and myself. And honestly, although I prefer great grammar and punctuation, I will not reject your story because you missed a comma or misspelled a word (however, this doesn’t mean you can send me a poorly edited manuscript). So, with that said, all this week, we shall concentrate on my Pet Peeves. And the Number One Spot goes to…(drumroll)…


Nearly every newbie author (including myself back in the day) is guilty of back story. Back story is when one set ups a scene to tell the reader all about the hero or the heroine before the actual story. Because one is trying to capture the reader’s attention, one wants them to understand and identify with the heroine/hero. That’s almost always how to TELL a story. Think about it. Remember the stories you told your kids?

“Once upon a time, there was a little girl whose Grandmother was sick. She baked some goodies for Grandma, put them in a basket, put on her little red jacket with hood and headed out the door. Stepping onto the forest path, she met a wolf…”

But in romance, it works better to SHOW a story. Start the story in the middle of the action, preferably when the hero/heroine or protagonists meet.

“Hello, my pretty.” The wolf’s eyes gleamed as he eyed the girl’s basket. He licked his chops as drool ran down his chin. (Right away we can see that this is the Bad Guy – his personal hygiene habits alone tell us his character).

“Hello,” Little Red Riding Hood said in a polite tone, furiously thinking that the loaf of bread in her basket simply wasn’t an adequate weapon. (Smart, bakes and can multi-task. Obviously, the heroine).

Even if the meeting isn’t auspicious, it actually sets the stage you were striving for in the back story. The wolf is established as the bad guy. Little Red Riding Hood is established as being the heroine in deep trouble. The reader has just entered the comfort zone of reading. Reader immediately knows the actors on the page, and is ready to identify with the heroine. The door is open. The page must be turned.

And that, my pretties, is right where you want the reader to be. So excited that turning the page cannot be helped. How many times has someone interrupted you right at the Big Moment in a book or movie? Your job, as a writer, is to make every single chapter have a Big Moment. Or two…or twenty. Keep that page turning.

Don’t bore me with the story of how Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother made that coat by going to a specialty store to buy the woolen fabric in that specific shade of cherry red, and how she bought real bone buttons and lined it with silk because LRRH was such a special little girl, what with baking Granny treats and doing the housework and fluffing pillows and all. Granny is a secondary character. She can be mentioned, but I don’t want her life story, her choices or her pet peeves even mentioned in the book, okay? Well, unless you can do it in a paragraph or less, as it relates to the hero/heroine. There is no reason to know why Granny made the coat. She’s Granny, LRRH is her granddaughter. Grannies do that kind of thing. That is sufficient for readers to know by inference.

Write tight. Your goal is to use as few words as possible to convey character and action. You want to punch the reader in the eyeballs with everything that will make them keep reading down the page and to the next.

The master of writing some of the best first lines ever was Louis L’Amour. Next time you go to the bookstore or library pick up a few of his books and read.

“When I rode up to the buffalo wallow, Pa was lying there with his leg broke, and his horse gone.” (END OF THE DRIVE Ó Louis & Katherine L’Amour Trust)

In that single sentence, the writer conveys a sense of urgency, a sense of responsibility, a sense of trouble, and the need to solve the problem fast. And the reader is off and running – reading as fast as possible to find out what happens.

Louis didn’t go into back story, he hopped right into the action, left the reader staring at the page thinking “My gosh, WHAT HAPPENED?” And then they find themselves reading all day and finishing the book at 2 a.m. knowing they have to go to work tomorrow.

As you continue writing the book, and at this point, I’ll talk specifically about romance, you must keep the hero and heroine together. Do not go off on a tangent about how the hero’s long lost brother shows up with three kids and a dog, and how the hero loved his brother’s wife back in the day and now must mourn her passing but is charmed by his brother’s daughter because she looks so much like her mother, a pretty girl with brown eyes and blonde hair who sang as sweetly as a lark, loved dogs, and could bake the best apply pie this side of Sara Lee. (It is almost Thanksgiving, I’m into baking metaphors).

The reader doesn’t want to know all that. The reader is looking for the romance – the reader wants to see the relationship develop between hero and heroine. Hero and heroine. Hero. And. Heroine. You can allow a little back story as they interact with each other. He can tell her about losing someone he loved. He doesn’t need to go into detail. She can see a photo of Mom and notice that the little girl looks like Mom and the hero seems to have a soft spot for the kid. But then, you must revert back to hero and heroine and how THEIR relationship is growing. What are they doing? What are they feeling? What is happening? How do they react when it happens? Do they take action? If so, is it a resolution? If not, why not? Will there be a resolution later? Why the delay?

Every time an author introduces a secondary character, the potential for back story is set. Resist! If you must use a secondary character, give the reader bare bones. A quick paragraph about their meaning in the hero or heroine’s life, and then move back to hero and heroine. Don’t give them a life history. Don’t give them “air-time” in a story about Hero and Heroine. If they have a story, write another book about them.

Don’t give Hero and Heroine much back story, either. Heroine’s story before meeting hero is hers alone. Hero’s story before meeting heroine is his alone. But this story…this story is about them. Together. Developing a relationship in the present. This is their story. Write it wisely.

Any questions? Ask in the comments section.

Next Pet Peeve Post: Point Of View


Renee Lynn said...

Great post, Jamie. Backstory can really weight a story down.

Looking forward to your other pet peeves!


Kelly McCrady said...

Great post. I feel justified in my "Here's these two people, they meet, go!" short stories. A recent review snarked my lack of character development--in a 30-page short story. Come on! How much do you need to know about these people? Who they were before the current story is not important.

Hear, hear!

Old Lady Saloon Keeper said...

what a nice job you did on speaking for all of us at TWRP.
Thanks very much

Old Lady Saloon Keeper said...

You rock!
kathy cottrell

Larry Hammersley said...

Hi Jamie: I've read your backstory and other articles just now. I certainly get the point and I've been told to get man and woman together quickly. Recently, I dropped the first twelve pages of a story to get man and woman together finally on page two. However, I felt I still had to weave in a few brief comments into the story to cover why the woman had a black eye, the verbal abuse of other pigs she'd run into which explained why she resolved to avoid men. Those details were covered in the deleted 12 pages. Any general comments on that? Larry

Lara said...

Fantasic post!

Jamie West, Editor said...

Larry - a paragraph or two can explain the abuse. And BTW, it is easier to do it in the hero's POV. As an observer, he will be physically disconnected, but can be emotionally powerful without the angst and remembered pain of the heroine. The "distance" actually advances the romance. Remember readers want to read a romance, not about an abusive situation. Romance is escapism, first and foremost. Keep that in mind as you write. There are lots of mainstream in-depth stories that have romance in them that cover that kind of situation, but in the end, its still all about the HEA.