Many writers begin their stories too early. In my novel Viral Times I’ve written three chapters of prologue. They likely will never see an editor’s desk, but I needed to write them to know more about some of my characters.
Starting too early in a story, even if it’s well-written, still won’t make it past an editor who wants to hear the tale, not revel in the backstory of vivid characters. (Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for backstory. Just read Empire Falls to see how Richard Russo makes the history of main characters so essential to understanding their current-day personalities.)
But most of us aren’t so clever as Russo. Even an award-winner like Val McDermid, according to the blog site The Writing Show. Quoted in an online interview , McDermid tells about a difficult amputation that taught her, and where else a writer can get an affordable education.
How do you decide when and in what context to reveal details about your characters and your story?
VM: It’s not a conscious decision-making process. It’s a combination of instinct and acquired technique. The first draft of my second novel, Common Murder, began with five beautifully crafted chapters of back story for my protagonist, Lindsay Gordon. When I sent it off to my agent, she said, ‘Lose the first five chapters. They’re lovely, but they don’t tell the story. Everything you’ve told us here can be fed in as and when we need to know it.’ That taught me a very important lesson, and I think it’s now so deeply embedded I don’t have to think about it any more.
Do you make a conscious decision to tell a certain proportion of the story through narration as opposed to dialog, or do you go by feel?
VM: Always by feel. I’m not at all formulaic about my writing. Most of what I do is informed by what feels right to me. I think the best way to develop these instincts is to read, read, read. You can learn as much from a bad book as a good one. Other people’s mistakes are a very cheap way to discover what not to do!