Writing a Novel: Cutting Out The B.S

The more I try to write a novel, the more I feel like I’m learning to write all over again.

I’ve got until the end of January to get the second draft done and sent off for a critique, so now I’m going through the first draft (which is as rough as a bear’s bum) and:

1. making a list of all the scenes (so many mad ideas! Some to be jettisoned, some to be expanded).
2. sorting out the ‘backstory’ and putting those pages into a pile of their own, clearly (and rather appropriately), labelled ‘BS’.

When I went on a novel-writing weekend last October, I was told in no uncertain terms, that my first 5000 words were (pah!) ‘backstory’ (ie: stuff that comes before the ‘narrative frame’ of the novel) and, it seems, that’s a typical rookie mistake.

Another delegate on the course confided that she’d had to cut the first 14,000 words of her first novel before anyone would consider publishing it (and it was successfully published), so at least I knew it wasn’t just me…

In the olden days, readers would trawl through pages of backstory until they got to the action because, well, they didn’t have Netflix or the internet, I suppose and they were happy with a ‘slow burner’ of a read. But today’s readers are impatient, so, as writers, we need to know our characters’ backstory – and some of it may get woven into the story later on – but if you put big dollops of it into the start of your story, it slows everything down and is boring for the reader.

I’ve been thinking a lot about backstory and trawling my many ‘how to write’ books and this is what I have learned about backstory and novel beginnings:

(i) Unless you’re telling the story of a character from the moment they’re born (and even then, I suppose, you could put in backstory about their conception, how their parents met… and so on), there’s going to be stuff-that-happened-before-the-action-of-the-novel. But how much of it does your reader need to know and when do they need to know it?

(ii) Strong novel openings are cinematic – ie: think film/movie. When you watch the start of a film, you don’t know the characters’ backstory. You can work out quite a lot of what’s happening just from the setting, dialogue and action. You find out the rest – or at least, what’s important – later on.

(iii) If you’re unsure of whether to put something in, ask yourself if the reader really needs to know this information about a character. If the answer is yes, do they need to know it NOW, in the first few pages or can it come later?

(iv) At the start of your novel, throw up some questions (why are the characters here, acting like they are?) but don’t answer them immediately. The answers will be revealed as the reader reads the book. Avoid the temptation to explain too much. Trust the reader to come with you on the ‘journey’.

Writer and teacher Emma Darwin, whose blog I can highly recommend, says, “I see many novels where the real story doesn’t start till Chapter 4: Chs 1-3 are all just trundling towards the starting grid.” (*guilty as charged*) but she goes on to say that it’s not a problem. It’s just a process of getting to know your characters and your story. All you have to do is chop out the first three chapters and you’re ready to go with the ‘front story’ (the ‘now’, rather than the ‘then’), which is what the reader is really interested in.

Simples, as they say on the meerkat adverts. I will go forth and try to follow all of that advice.

And in the meantime, I’m planning to enter the Good Housekeeping novel competition (closing 30th March) and I’ve successfully applied to join the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme, for the first time. (No skill involved, I just got lucky and was one of the first 300 to apply). Once I’ve sent them the joining fee, I’ve got until August to send them my manuscript for another critique.

Am I the only one who needs deadlines to keep focussed? Without them, I just wouldn’t do it.

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14 Responses to Writing a Novel: Cutting Out The B.S

  1. Wendy Clarke says:

    The RNA New Writers’s Scheme is great. It was knowing that I needed to submit something by the August that spurred me on to write my two novels. Good luck with the Good Housekeeping Competition – I’m entering my first novel into it 😀.

  2. Helen Yendall says:

    Thanks, Wendy! Yes, I knew that you’d been spurred on by the New Writers’ Scheme and that was partly the spur for me too! Good luck in the GH competition!

  3. Fran Hill says:

    A publisher who’s just read my novel likes it but says I keep ‘back-tracking’ – filling in backstory here and there which interrupts the flow of the story. Arrggh! Thanks for your post. Very timely 🙂

    • That’s interesting, Fran – and as you say, very timely! But at least you know what the ‘problem’ is and hopefully that will help you to fix it! It’s very tempting, isn’t it, to fill in the story for the reader but I think we have to try to keep pushing forward with the story and trust that the reader will either fill in the gaps for himself or will be prepared to wait to find out what’s going on or why a character is behaving in a certain way! Good luck with your novel!

  4. gailaldwin says:

    I was in the NWS until it became obvious that I wasn’t writing romantic fiction. It’s a great networking opportunity especially the winter party where I met several agents.

  5. Helen Yendall says:

    I wasn’t expecting to find myself writing romantic fiction but it turns out, I am (or at least, there’s romance in it and hopefully enough to satisfy the RNA!). I am looking forward to going to some of the events, in due course.

  6. philippabowe says:

    Hi Helen, first things first: Happy New Year!! And sounds like you’re starting 2018 with a positive momentum – congrats on getting the first draft done, that’s a great achievement!
    I admit I’m ambivalent about the get-into-the-action-straightaway imperative, probably because I love a slow burn myself, and I can only write what I love – while still keeping in mind, of course, the importance of readability and drawing the reader in; I’ve already had to chuck some unnecessary details out of my first chapter following an in-depth critique by my writing partner.
    Also very positive that you’ve joined what sounds like a very productive scheme.
    And yes, totally dependent on deadlines in all areas of life – without them I’m still in my pyjamas at five in the afternoon (not an exaggeration)…:-)
    Good luck with the second draft!

    • Thanks Philippa and Happy New Year to you too! Don’t completely throw away those ‘unnecessary details’ – if you save them you might be able to slip them in later in the book!

  7. I think my stories might be full of BS!

  8. lauraclipson says:

    If I don’t give myself a deadline, it just doesn’t get done. I absolutely need goals and deadlines to keep me focused – without them I would get nothing done at all. Good luck with the editing!

  9. Rosemary Reader and Writer says:

    Reblogged this on Write on and commented:
    If you’re writing a novel, this is all very good stuff.

    Sorry nothing from me this week. Am awaiting learning observation in… 40 minutes. Very scary! Ask any teacher.

  10. Rosemary Reader and Writer says:

    Thanks Helen. Very thoughtful stuff – so much so, I’ve reblogged it!

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