I'm going to be talking about beginnings (as in Chapter One, Scene One) for a few posts. Harlequin Presents recently had a contest and editor Suzanne Clark has posted a great list of mistakes beginners' make on the I Heart Presents blog.
First up, she lists "too much, too soon." Ah yes, the dreaded info/backstory dump. I, too, am guilty of this. Every single time I start a book.
But then I go back and take material out and move it, in bits and pieces, to later in the story. Otherwise, you bring your story to a grinding halt.
Also, your readers haven't had time to develop an interest in your characters, so it's like being stuck in the corner at a party with some stranger who proceeds to regale you with their life history. Get me outta here! I need a little information to make me curious; I don't need to know all their issues.
The best advice I ever heard to help get on the right track with openings comes from contemporary romance author Molly O'Keefe, who says, "Ask questions, don't give answers."
Indeed. Info dumps are answers to questions your readers haven't even asked yet. Why should they bother to read on?
Yes, I want to meet the characters, and I want to know why the hero and heroine don't just get married and start having babies, but I don't need to know all the reasons right up front. I only need one to start; let the rest follow.
I want to see enough of the characters to be interested. I don't need to know all about their past experiences or their families. Let the readers learn these things along with the characters, over time. The way it happens in real life.
I also want the tone to be set in a way that's consistent with the rest of the book. If it's going to be fast-paced, give me a fast-paced opening. If your style is more leisurely, that's okay -- but don't start off with a gun battle, then have it morph into a story about a woman who finds love at the local Wal-Mart.
If you find you have to do the info dump, as I do, don't berate yourself and think you're a lousy writer. Just go back later and spread the info around.
And if you're thinking, "But how do I know how much to leave in and where and how to move the rest?"
Well, m'dears, that's what makes writing difficult, because the only way I know is trial and error. If it's any comfort, a couple of books back, I was asked to delete the entire opening scene. Apparently it was an info dump of epic proportions -- so much so, nobody missed it when it was gone.