Thursday, August 13, 2015

What a Writer Can Learn from a Salt Shaker

Do you love to salt your food? Me, too. Ever tried a spoonful of it? Yeah, not so tasty. (Gimme a break—I was six!)

One of the most widely-known tips for improving a novel’s opening is to avoid too much backstory upfront. Distill what’s happened before the story begins into the most vital info, and then sprinkle in it like salt over the course of the novel. I’ve ripped many an info dump out of my manuscripts when revising.

Lately as I’ve edited my latest WIP, THE BACH DOUBLE, the feedback I’ve gotten from betas has reminded me that the sprinkling of limited amounts of info should not be limited to backstory. In the first few chapters I tried to carefully introduce the cast of characters so as not to overwhelm the reader. Where I made a mistake was in my descriptions.

With several of my secondary characters, in my eagerness to let their appearance give the reader some clues about their personalities, I overdid it. After this was pointed out, it was clear to me that a full immediate description of height, eye color, hair color, etc. isn’t necessary and can pull the reader out of the narrative. Does the reader need to know every detail about my main character’s violin teacher when she’s introduced? Not really. Getting too much info at once takes the focus off the exchange between the characters.

So this:

Normally Elise confided quite a bit in her petite teacher who looked younger than she was with her chunky-framed glasses and short frosted hair, but she didn’t think Ms. Randall would be happy to hear she was angry with her orchestra teacher and ready to slap her smiling stand partner.

became this:

Normally Elise shared lots of random information about school and orchestra with her petite teacher who looked younger than she was. Ms. Randall probably wouldn’t be happy to hear she was angry with her orchestra teacher. If she knew Elise was ready to slap her smiling stand partner—well, better not to go there.

which allows the focus to stay on Elise, my main character, and the frustration she’s feeling, but not allowing herself to share. The paragraph gives some info about the teacher, but more insight into Elise. Just a sprinkle of salt (Ms. Randall’s looks) and mostly flavor (Elise’s thoughts).

So writer friends, what do you tend to overdo in your first drafts?

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