The Indelicate Editor – Why Now, Brown Cow?

by Gayle Towell

cow-431729_1920So you’re writing a new novel, you say? And vigorously filling in all of the backstory as early as possible to leave the reader well-informed and ready to go?

Stop, already. Just stop. You’re making a cobbled mess of things. Probably, you’ve got one or more of the following going on:

1. Info Dumping

You might have a hook there, but you’ve hung a dozen jackets up on it, and your reader has no place to hang theirs. The present action is interrupted with a page of backstory every other paragraph. Very soon we’re looking up from your book to watch paint dry because it’s far more interesting.

If a villain is being villainous in the opening, I don’t care about how his parents neglected him as a child. I just want to watch him cook puppies. Drop the sob-story bomb later when the hero is about to exact his revenge.

2. Uncontextualized Info

I prefer peonies, you idiot!

I prefer peonies, you idiot!

In My Sappy Relationships by Otto Bio we are treated to the floral preferences of every woman “Bob” has dated. Sue likes roses, Mary likes daisies, and Francine is fond of daffodils. We are further told that Francine grew up in a beach house while Mary was a city girl and Sue a country bumpkin. All this before we interact with any of these characters in any meaningful way. Then in chapter five “Bob” purchases daffodils in a flower shop on his way to the coast and we’re expected to remember who they might be for.

A reader doesn’t know what to do with information that doesn’t to apply to anything yet. Without context, it carries no weight, making our brains much less likely to retain it. Maybe Otto should tell us about Francine’s love for daffodils when “Bob” is picking out the flowers, or write a scene in which Francine expresses her undying daffodil affection. Don’t drop it on us before we have reason to care, Otto. It’s just not going to stick.

3. The Red Herring Effect

In the opening chapter of Where’s the Bacon? by I. Forgotha Point, Miss Baconmaker calls her friend Jeff while eating a strawberry slowly and watching a cat chase a mouse on a TV show. For some reason the strawberries are green inside. Miss Baconmaker’s hair is blonde with red highlights that her hairdresser Alejandro said would make her look younger, though she wasn’t concerned about her age. On the phone, Jeff talks about the astronomy class he’s taking and how he keeps missing lecture because his boss makes him work overtime. Miss Baconmaker is unemployed and living off of her inheritance. Funds are running low, however, and she had to fire the gardener last week. Now her yard is overgrown with weeds. She muses about astronomy and how her mother taught her the constellations once. She wonders if she should grow strawberries in the yard.

Anyone want to guess what happens next?

If you start glutting your prose with info that isn’t presently relevant, your reader doesn’t know what to pay attention to. Is it the strawberry? Is that a metaphor for fertility? Is it related to the hairdresser making her look younger? Except it says she wasn’t concerned about her age… But maybe that’s just what she tells herself? What’s with Jeff, and why does he care about astronomy? Does he secretly want to be an astronaut? Does he think Miss Baconmaker would be happier as an astronaut? We shouldn’t have to work so hard to figure out where this is all going. Streamline it. If the details don’t support what you’re trying to convey, then they belong elsewhere.

4. Redundancy

You aren’t sure when to reveal something, so you reveal it in every scene. It’s repeated over and over, and by the time it’s actually important, we don’t care anymore.

Consider the following scenarios:

exhausted-151822_1280Scenario A: In chapter one of Hangin’ Low by Wai Me, we are told Johnny is depressed, likely because his father used to smack him around as a kid. In chapter two we are told that, because of his father’s abuse, Johnny feels tense around authority figures. Then in chapter three we learn that Johnny is always apprehensive around his dad because his dad used to hit him. In chapter four, Johnny has a nightmare/flashback of his father’s abuse.

Scenario B: It’s clear in chapter one that Johnny is depressed. We’re wondering why. Then in chapter two we see him shy away from aggressive authority figures. Chapter three he interacts with his father, but the whole time he is tense, and his behavior has changed. Then in chapter four he has a nightmare/flashback of his father coming home drunk and smacking him around.

The flashback in scenario A doesn’t have as much of an impact because we’re bored with the abuse story by the time we get there. But in scenario B, the flashback becomes the last piece of a puzzle we’ve been following. It’s satisfying and interesting instead of yeah, yeah, we get it already. Important reveals need only be made once. Don’t blow your wad early.

* * *

Planting extra information before it becomes relevant is a waste of the reader’s time and effort. Always ask yourself “Why now?” when assessing your backstory reveals. Why are you putting this information in this particular location? Is this really the place for it? Or is this an artifact of the initial word vomit that began the draft?

In summary: Keep it relevant.

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