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Your Book Starts in the Wrong Place

One of the biggest mistakes I see in submissions is the book starts in the wrong place. Either you’ve filled it with backstory and nothing is happening, or you’ve started too deep in the action and I have no clue what’s happening.

Too Much Backstory

Too much backstory is probably the most common problem. You’re steeped in a conversation or flashbacks or even a scene that really doesn’t matter so that you can tell us about everyone and everything before anything happens.

It’s boring.

When I read a book I want to get into the heart of the story. That means that whatever your pitch is, the book is taking me there very early on. If you’re writing about a woman recovering from a failed marriage, I don’t need 50 pages of the failed marriage. I need to know what’s happening now.

An exception is if the failed marriage timeline also has action that takes me through the book. If it’s only getting me to the actual point of the book it’s not working.

This is the time when I remind you how writing your query and pitch while writing the book can help keep you on track.

Too Much Action

We’re often told that every book starts with the action, but as I’ve stated at other times, that’s a misnomer. Every book starts in an active place, but not necessarily in the middle of a gunfight.

Dropping the reader (that’s me) into heavy action without any concept of who, what, why, or where, only leaves me scratching my head. When we say start with the action, we mean don’t start with your character waking from a dream or driving a car, but get us the point and help us get to know them while we’re there.

A lot of times I think writers make these mistakes because they’re still trying to figure out the characters and story themselves. That’s fine, just go back later, when you know more, and fix them.

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6 comments

  1. I do this with every book. I’ve realised it’s part of my process and I know that in my first round of edits my first scene, or chapter, will get the chop.

  2. Thank you for the blog Jessica. Just to clarify, you cite a few examples of how not to start a story – 50 pages of a failed marriage, in the middle of a gunfight, waking from a dream etc. – what is a good example of where to start? You say to “help us get to know them while we’re there” and I’m wondering what you mean by that in the opening of a story. How do you avoid backstory if you are trying to get the reader to know about the character?

    1. My best answer to this is to look at the books you read and love. How did their openings grab you? There are no rules on what you have to do that works. You have to make it work.

  3. I hear this advice frequently, yet books get published all the time that do this. For instance, “The Bear and The Nightingale” goes through several chapters of backstory, introducing us to characters we will never see again, before the MC is even born! Not saying I think I should just go ahead commit this crime, myself, and expect to be published anyway. I just don’t understand how a never-before-published author managed to get away with this – got an agent to read the manuscript past the first few pages to begin with, let alone have it get through the publication process without major structural overhauls.

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