We read to experience another world and another life. We read to fall into a world. Excessive explanation takes us out of that experience and talks at us rather than guides us through a fantastic journey. If we wanted a lecture, we wouldn’t have sat in the back of the dark lecture hall either nodding off, or reading a novel, that if well written, was the polar opposite of the boring telling lecture taking place at the front of the class.
As Elmore Leonard commented: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
In the opening of my second Future Girls book, Future Gold, I agonized over how to get the heroine, Jordan, from her time (2145) back in time (1861). I wanted to explain why she was in the Duck and Screw. I wanted to give the reader Jordan’s back story. I wanted to get all the details of Jordan’s life into those first pages so when she traveled back in time, the reader already knew enough to really understand her.
None of it worked.
Here is the truncated version of a (apparently) poor way to start a novel:
“Hey Phillip.” She quickly unloaded the plates, forks and serving dishes onto the bar.
“Hey Jordan. The rest of the crew will be here in a minute, I got a notice from three of them.”
Jordan put her hands on her hips and absently bit at her thumb cuticle. “Late.”
“Or you are always early.” Phillip grinned mischievously.
“You’re in a good mood.” Jordan realized what she was doing and dropped her hand.
“Got something off my chest today.” The bar owner swiped the bar surface with a clean cloth and then removed three martini glasses from the top shelf. Those particular glasses had pride of place at the bar since Jordan could remember. And she had availed herself of this unlikely spot as her refuge since she was in middle school.
Middle school, what a horrible term. As if that terrible, awkward part signified that once the onerous middle was through, the worst could possibly be almost over. She had thought that at least a terrible middle would lead to a conciliatory experience in the upper grades, that she would finally find a group to belong to, but that hadn’t been the case.
Jordan stretched out her arms on the bar and rested her head on the scarred wood surface.
“When does it get easier?” She mumbled into the wood.
Phillip glanced over her head. Outside the windows he watched as the afternoon traffic picked up. Citizens, Californians and foreign tourists bustled home, to restaurants , hailed auto cars, dashed into a replicator store for a last minute gift, or costume. He glanced at the girl on the bar, her black hair spilled over her shoulders, her nails were short and ragged. She should stop biting them. But he knew that particular habit wouldn’t stop any time soon, she was too high strung. In the vernacular, she had issues.
They all did. But poor Jordan had more than usual.
“Why can’t I just grow out of this?” She said into the bar, her voice muffled.
The Beta readers were unanimous: it’s boring. Ditch the first chapter. (You do have to be prepared for brutal feedback from Beta readers, but often it can be the most helpful kind). So I switched the whole opening, and changed the consciousness of the main character. This wasn’t easy, it was a great deal of work, but, I felt, worth it.
“You think you’re so hot because you look like a Californian.” Gaia sneered. “Well, it won’t do you much good now.”
Jordan’s stomach sank. Gaia wasn’t exaggerating. This time, her looks would not rescue her.
The trees above them shook as if reacting to the energy coursing through the ground. Jordan shuddered. It never occurred her, in her 18 years, that the plan would work. But for the first time, she doubted her own cynicism.
They hadn’t always been at odds. Gaia and Jordan used to be friends, or at least allies. They shared the same birth month, so they were thrown together at every ceremony. It was Gaia who first told Jordan that in the west, kids could removed their chips when they turned 18. “The wealthy do it all the time, that way you aren’t tracked.”
“But I’m not going anywhere.” Jordan had protested. She was so used to instant access and immediate escape she wasn’t entirely sure she could cope with real life. She needed the Reality Cloud. Maybe the rich kids had another way to access their information, but she didn’t.
“I saw you.” Gaia stumbled over a tree root, but quickly recovered. Jordan kept her expression neutral and did not slow. Gaia had always taken her assignment, as well as herself, seriously. Her focus of study was 1967, the Summer of Love. She liked to lecture everyone on all things mid-century. Which, after a few months, only inspired girls to avoid Gaia at all cost.
Besides, they could just visit California through the Cloud. Jordan had spent hours on a white sand beach watching the glittering waves dash in and out. It wasn’t until recently that she wondered if that beach really existed. What you asked for and what the Reality Cloud delivered wasn’t always what you had in mind.
Gaia adjusted a ridiculously fringed poncho and caught up with Jordan.
“Saw me where?” Jordan finally asked but she didn’t really want to know the answer.
A colorful arrangement of women had already gathered at the top of the high berm. Jordan’s mother crouched next to the controls mounted on a tangle of generators that were just the tip of the complex underground. Mother was so busy with the equipment she didn’t see or acknowledge her daughter. Just as well.
“The First Time Site.” Gaia’s look was calculating. “And I’d say you weren’t having a very good time.”
She skipped ahead leaving Jordan in a pool of silence and shade. Oh no.
Then everything blows up.
My publisher, Eternal Press, took the book without much discussion at all.
Readers are an increasingly impatient bunch, and even though our vision is focused on the explanation, the background, even the art of what we are creating, we also need to consider the reader.
So get to the action. Blow something up. Make someone cry. You can tell us why later.