Friend, Fan or Fellow Writer, otherwise known as some lovely person who’s drawn the right conclusion from the lovely, oceantastic cover of Child of a Hidden Sea: So the new book is a pirate book?”
Me: Um… well… yes…
FFF: It doesn’t have pirates?
Me: It’s just they’re reform, rather than orthodox.
(Which always gets a laugh, but it is more deflection than answer.)
Something I see with a lot of newer writers is a tendency to want to front-load all of the backstory for a book or piece of short fiction upfront.
It’s a natural impulse. Even when we tell stories in person, we’ll often want to start with a quick rundown on everything the listener might possibly need to know to understand how you got away with flipping off the boss, or convincing Mom to make the vegetarian soup without chicken stock for once, or winning that free ski trip to the Sahara.
Story, though, is a separate thing from everything you need to understand. And often, the listener or reader needs less than we think.
Think of the story as the mansion we want to explore. Backstory is just the concrete pad it’s built on: important, to be sure, but also chilly, grey, and unvaried. It’s tucked away beneath the walls and finishes for a reason.
Figuring out what you absolutely have to include, and then slipping it in delicately, can take real finesse.
So, case in point: How do you reform pirates? The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is against their will. On Stormwrack, hundred years or so before Child of a Hidden Sea begins, the people of the five pirate nations were causing havoc around the world. Plunder and homicide weren’t merely for profit; they formed the backbone of their national identity. Who you were in those nations depended largely on your exploits, plus those of your forebears, heirs and assigns. Families and fortunes are built on who you sank, who you ransomed, and what you stole.
This unabashedly bloody-minded national identity led to enough death and carnage that eventually an alliance of nations put to sea to bully the pirates out of business. It worked. But though nations could no longer get away with sinking ships, murdering their crews and stealing all their stuff with impunity, it didn’t change who they were.
At first, there were probably benefits. All sorts of middle aged and older pirates got to retire without dying. They settled down, had families, and passed on their experience to the next generation. Work-related deaths and injuries went down, and the birth rate went up. The Isle of Gold went into international banking, and did not badly.
Eventually, because it was obvious there was no other choice, they joined the alliance of countries that initially came together to crush them.
Then a few generations went by. There were no new exploits to add to those family names. The economies of the pirate nations, now allegedly legit, bumped against the problem that led them to banditry in the first place: their resource base was poor. The pirate youth got restless, and less risk-averse.
Why am I telling you this?
I’ve done my best just now to make 109 years of history not entirely uninteresting. But if I started a book with this, would you read it? None of the above is going to be as compelling as that moment when the attempts to regain their days of glory leads the pirates to attempt an assassination.
The assassination–actually its aftermath–is where my story begins. (Here’s a link to the first chapter of the book.)
Another answer to this how much do I tell dilemma, and one that has fallen to some degree out of fashion, is the prologue. In other words, you start your book with a short chapter set somewhere within that backstory, using it to relay the important bits of the situation. You leave a few intriguing questions dangling, and then jump ahead to chapter one, throwing your protagonist into that assassination, or whatever initial incident is kicking off your story proper.
There are people who say never where prologues are concerned, but I’m not one of them. If they are intriguing, useful, and make a few promises about things to look forward to as the story unfolds, I’m all for them. But if they are summaries–if they’re what I’ve written above–they rarely work. When I have up above is just history, without a point of view character, or any kind of action.
If you have a book or story that’s begun in the fashion of what I’ve written above about Stormwrack’s pirate nations, consider whether you need all that information. Is it more interesting than starting with the attempted murder? Unless the answer’s an unequivocal yes, consider leapfrogging over it, and getting us to the main event.
A. M. Dellamonica has recently moved to Toronto, Canada, after 22 years in Vancouver. In addition to writing, she studies yoga and takes thousands of digital photographs. She is a graduate of Clarion West and teaches writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
Dellamonica’s first novel, Indigo Springs, won the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her most recent book, Child of a Hidden Sea, will be released by Tor Books this month. She is the author of over thirty short stories in a variety of genres: they can be found on Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and in numerous print magazines and anthologies. Her website is at http://alyxdellamonica.com.