Saturday, September 15, 2007

Backstory Blues

Action is what it’s all about. And here I sit, mired in infernal internal monologue and bad backstory. But how come I keep reading it in other people's books, page after page?

I’ve been revising Third-Rate Romance the past few weeks, yanking out the weeds. Here’s an excerpt, where the hopeless heroine-writer Kelly King has gone to great lengths and adverbial phrases to pick up the pace of her Inspirational-Historical-Western. After a decidedly not cute meet-cute, her characters debate the wisdom of their story. Bold typeface is Kelly’s wobbly work, the rest is her characters’ conversation after she’s left the scene of the crime.

Taming the Texan/King

She had seen the cloud of dust long before she saw the lone stranger riding across her barren field. Clutching her faded skirts and running as fast as she could, she clambered up on the porch where the shotgun lay propped against the ripped screen door.

It could be Jack Darcy. It could be any outlaw down on his luck, looking to take advantage of a young widow in the middle of nowhere. As the man rode inexorably closer, she knew she didn’t know him. With the sun behind him, his face was masked in mystery.

He dismounted and walked lankily toward Eliza’s crooked front steps. It didn’t seem to bother him at all that she had leveled her shotgun squarely at him.
Eliza’s heart hammered in her chest. “Get off my land.”

“You won’t shoot me, darlin’,” he drawled, his deep voice penetrating her tattered senses. ”And it’s not your land. I’ve got me the papers to prove it.” He reached inside his coat for the sealed envelope from Judge Archie.

Mistaking his intention, Eliza took a hasty step backward, tangling her feet in her torn petticoats. With a terrified shriek, she overcorrected and stumbled forward over the basket of corn just waiting to be shucked. The gun discharged with an unholy roar. Tumbleweed blurred by the porch, and a blossom of blood seeped through the dusty coat of the stranger.

“I reckon I was wrong,” the man said, still standing, though unsteady. He sank into the painted blue rocker, a look of mild surprise on his deeply tanned face.

Eliza scrambled up, her russet hair a fiery corona around her pale worried visage.

“I didn’t mean to---oh, I’m sorry---who are you?”

“Lincoln Harkness, ma’am, at your service,” he said, right before he toppled onto the splintery porch floor.

Wow. That was some powerful stuff, Kelly thought. She smiled and hit Save.
“Good God Almighty! Was that really necessary?” Link wiped the sweat from his impossibly handsome face with a red bandana. Damn, it sure was hot in this godforsaken book.

She read somewhere you’re supposed to start right off with a bang, in this case a shotgun blast. Too much exposition is a killer. Hold still. The shell bounced right off your badge, anyway. It’s hardly a scratch,” Eliza said irritably. “I’ve worked this land ever since my worthless husband died. I simply cannot believe she’s going to take it away from me. I mean, really, I went to an exclusive ladies’ seminary in Boston. I’m an educated woman. But I was tricked into coming all this way by a silver-tongued liar, and I’ll be damned if another man gets the better of me! I’ve worked my fingers to the bone!” Eliza spread her shaking hands in front of Link. He couldn’t disagree. She definitely had a point. They looked pretty bony.

“There’ve been locusts. Tornados. Off the page, but still. As it is, I’m barely surviving. I even had to give to give my dog away! He would have barked at you when you trespassed. I miss him.” A silver tear rolled down Eliza’s hollow cheek.

“What kinda dog?” asked Link, gasping as she none-too-gently slapped some foul-smelling ointment on his bare chest.

“A shepherd. A hungry shepherd. He didn’t much care for vegetables, and I couldn’t afford meat for him. When he ate the last chicken, he had to go.”

“Pity. A dog’s good company. I was fixin’ to get me one myself when I moved in.”

“You can’t move in! This is my ranch! It may not be much, but it’s all I’ve got.” She narrowed her sea-green eyes. “Don’t you have to live in town to keep the peace?”

“I think Chesterville’s a pretty quiet place. She don’t know nothin’ about sheriffin’ but what she’s seen on Gunsmoke re-runs. I ’spect I can sleep in the jail when I have an unexpected guest.” He paused, weighing his words carefully. “I do have the papers, you know. Even with that there hole in them, they’re still legal.” His black gaze never left her. She looked away and sighed.

She should have known. Her late husband had been written to be a feckless gambler. No doubt he’d lost their home before he had the kindness to go toes up in Madame Georgette’s whorehouse in Beaumont. Damn the man to Hell. She hoped he was roasting and sweating bullets. But he was a lucky devil. He didn’t have to live through the next 300-odd pages.

Link cleared his throat, his square fingers rubbing at his dark stubble. If he’d known he was going to meet the most tantalizing red-headed woman he’d ever seen, he would have seen to trimming his moustache and getting One-Eyed Willie to give him a good close shave. He might even have taken a bath. But he hadn’t had much preparation for his debut and didn’t know half as much backstory as Eliza seemed to. He leaned back in the rocker, furrowed his manly brow, and considered.

There was one way she could stay, but he didn’t want to stick around long enough for her to reload if she misunderstood his offer. He gathered up his courage. He was a hero, after all. He couldn’t let this little lady get the better of him, even if he’d only gone to school through the third grade afore he made his way in the cruel world. He may not have had much book-learnin’, but he was plenty smart and studly besides.

“Miz Eliza, there is one way you could stay.”

“Oh! Thank you, Sheriff! I knew you were a civilized man underneath all that---”

Link held up an enormous, elegantly formed hand. He bet she had big plans for that hand in future chapters. “Wait. I mean to move in. This place is mine.”

“I don’t understand.” The transparent joy evaporated, and realization dawned. She slapped his face roundly. “She’s writing our story for the inspirational niche! I won’t be your whore!”

The blast must have had a negatory effect on his reflexes. He scooched back to prevent further abuse and shook his head. Hell and eternal damnation. By the living Jesus, there’d be no fun ahead, he reckoned. Just his luck to wind up in the Wild West with all the wildness sucked right out of it. But he’d have to make the best of a bad bargain. She really hadn’t given him much choice. “No, ma’am, I don’t need a whore. I need a housekeeper.”

Eliza tucked a wavy strand behind her ear. “It wouldn’t be proper,” she said stiffly, “the two of us living out here alone together.”

“Well, then,” said Link with a trademark crooked smile, “we’ll just have to get us a dog.”

How do you slip in vital information when you write? Do you even notice infodumps when you read? Show/tell me about your Big Bang when your/your favorite characters meet!


Terri Osburn said...

I admit it - I haven't read the whole blog! I've been to the ball field already this morning and now I'm headed out again but I had to come see the hot cowboy. Once again Maggie - you never let us down. Nice.

I'll be back later and I promise to read and play along. But seriously, I can't wait to buy this book. I sure hope that cowboy is on the cover! LOL!

RevMelinda said...

Maggie, I just love your writing. What a gift you have!

I don't mind info-dump so much, as long as it's well written. I'm listening to Ondaatje's book Anil's Ghost in the car now which switches back and forth between characters, then introduces new ones and info-dumps them like mad before they join the narrative. His info-dumps are gorgeously written, poetical even, and I just want them to go on and on!

I am beginning to understand about myself that one of the things I don't like about some writers is the excessive perseverating POV business--you know, "He raised his brow. She watched him raise his brow and wondered. What was he thinking? Could he be thinking about her? Perhaps he knew that she was a girl dressed as a boy. But how could he? He was so beautiful but he could be just another bad boy. . .etc etc etc" on for a whole page, and then he raises his other eyebrow and she spends a whole page reacting to that. Sigh.

Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe said...

RevM, I think YOU should be a writer! Love your example. I haven't been able to get into audiobooks, but perhaps should give them a try.

Terrio, who's the ballplayer? You or Isabelle (am I spelling her name right?)?

Gillian Layne said...

This is so flippin' wonderful to read. I was aggravated when it was over.

What's the question again? :)

RevMelinda said...

Maggie, once upon a time I wanted to be a writer. Then I took creative writing in college and discovered that everyone else in the world wanted to be a writer, which immediately made it less attractive to me, LOL.

Plus I felt very disconcerted when everyone else in the class wrote gut-wrenching narratives of sexual abuse, eating disorders, rape, racial violence, etc--um, I hadn't experienced any of that so I felt like I didn't have anything "meaningful" to say. (I was wanting to write Gothick Mysteries myself about dark castles, creepy paintings, and frightened virgins.)

So now I write sermons and I know they're About Something Meaningful even if they aren't Gothick (well, not most of the time, LOL).

I should note, however, that one of my classmates from that very class went on to become a Famous Playwright who has had a play on Broadway, won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur genius grant, and is writing something now for Oprah's production company. No wonder I was intimidated out of my ambition, sigh.

RevMelinda said...

Hey, not only is your post ABOUT backstory but you got me to tell you some of my own backstory. Have you considered a career in psychotherapy?

Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe said...

RevM, you have divined my evil plan. One day I shall hold all of you at my mercy. Seriously, I think you're on to something even bigger than Oprah with your sermons.

Gillian, blushing. It really was enormous fun to if only I can get the right someone to read it. Must consult w/ RevM.

Terri Osburn said...

K, I'm back. Seriously, if this thing doesn't get pubbed soon, we're going to have to take up a collection and get a bunch of copies binded. I'm not going to be able to wait much longer.

Isabelle (you spelled it right) is the ball player. I wish I was in playing shape but that was many moons ago.

Now - backstory - I think some is necessary even though the current trend is NO BACKSTORY AT ALL! But I may even fall victim to it and join them. I have a short paragraph on the first page of the WIP that sort of works as an introduction of the heroine to the reader. I tend to write in that Omniscient (?) POV where I'm linging outside of the characters but I can read their thought and then I tell them to the reader. But I'm getting better at not doing that.

I'm thinking about eliminating that intro and just letting the reader find out details like age and how long she's been at her job through dialogue. I haven't decided yet. I think it's less a "rule" and more a matter of style. That's why we see it in our favorite authors, that was their style long before someone decided it wasn't a good idea.

RevMelinda said...

Maggie, I wish I could claim a good friendship with My College Friend (such as to propel all my acquaintance into authorhood) but alas. I went to a reading she did and she remembered Everything About Me except my name. Hey, at least I got in free! Now she's on the lecture circuit and making many (MANY) thousands for her appearances and probably no one can even get close enough to talk to her any more.

Janga said...

Maggie, I love, love, love TRR. I read the pieces you post, and bits of it stay with me and keep me chuckling throughout the day.

I have hundreds of pages of backstory that I either have cut from my wip or that was never part of it in the first place but was something I had to write in order to move the story forward. I have been overwriting since I wrote the story of Nancy and Jan's Jungle Adventures at the age of seven (generously aided by Satuday matinees). I don't think I am likely to change my writing habits this late in the game.

Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe said...

Janga, I know exactly what you mean about writing stuff that you "had" to...but no one else needs to read it! I seem to do a lot of that. Now that I'm into revisions, the pruning shears have come out. I want to know more about Nancy and Jan in the jungle. :)

Terrio, I think you're right about the "no backstory" stuff being of somewhat recent vintage. Too bad I didn't start writing years ago!

RevM, you tease. Who is this classmate? I can do a six degrees of separation thing.

RevMelinda said...

Hi Maggie,

Her name is Suzan-Lori Parks. Here's her wikipedia entry:

Don't know if that'll make a link or not, but you can just look her up if not.

Maybe I should edit the Wikipedia link to put in that we were in Creative Writing and Shakespeare classes together? LOL

BernardL said...

I notice info dumps, and they're a lot easier to absorb if the characters handle them within the linear direction of the plot. They can be tedious and distracting. If you can serve them up in a humorous situation, it can be an artform.

Tessa Dare said...

Maggie, that excerpt is hilarious!

Infodumps - it does seem that pubbed authors are able to get away with this much more often than we struggling aspiring types. When I notice myself writing an infodump, I just try to ask myself, "is there some way I can reveal this in dialogue?" Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't.