I’ve been cleaning out some old files lately and came across some early writing I’d done. What I found particularly interesting was at least fifty pages of introduction I had written for my first novel, SO MANY REASONS TO DIE. Apparently when I began the book, I felt it necessary to bring my readers up to date on everything that had happened before the murder, so that they would know all the characters and their roles in the story.
So I introduced all the characters, got them all together in a preliminary meeting, and then, many pages later, the murder happened. By that time, I now realize, I would have lost any readers who had begun the book. Readers want to get to the conflict in a reasonable length of time. They don’t want to know all the characters intimately before anything happens. That can be filled in later, in back story.
That is definitely the way modern novels—genre and literary—are written. Charles Dickens, who of course was paid by the word and wrote his books to be published in serial form, was expected to write a leisurely start, a lot of character and descriptive detail and to have the action led up to gradually. But, he wasn’t competing with television, movies, iphones, e-books, and all kinds of other distractions. He was the distraction. So, writing has changed, and writers have had to change with it.
I remember feeling that there was no way I could delete that first fifty or sixty pages, but I did, and no one missed it—not even me. The murder had already happened when the book opens, the murder scene is retold from various characters’ points of view, and the book is a lot shorter—and read by more people.
Sometimes, though, it’s difficult to know where to start a story. In PSYCHIC DAMAGE, due out this spring, I began with a murder: a driveby shooting. That was the beginning for quite some time and lasted through much editing, but finally I changed the story to the setting which had inspired its creation. In the building where I worked, there was a floor between the fourth and fifth floors, called the four-and-a-half. I’d had occasion to go up there from time to time and had thought several times of it being the perfect spot to overhear something mysterious—some foul deed about to be done or just having been done. It became the setting for the first scene of PSYCHIC DAMAGE when the protagonist, Eva Stuart, overhears talk about a murder which has been committed: the driveby shooting that had originally been the first scene. I think it reads better that way. I hope you’ll agree.
A book has to grab me within a few pages, either by action or character or setting. If not, I don’t continue reading. Sometimes I’m more patient, but I want to know what I’m reading about. What makes you keep reading? How long does it take you to get into what you’re reading or to put it down and say, “Boring!” I’d love to hear from you.