Saturday, May 14, 2011

Everyone's got a background

We had a vigorous discussion at my last writers group meeting, prompted by two long submissions group members had given us to work on. One, from a member I'll call Kelly, was the beginning of a very creative novel with all sorts of weird things going on. Well, in actuality, "going on" is not the right term, since 80 percent of the submission was background. Where the characters came from, how they met each other, what they thought about their various provenances, how they related with their parents. I found it frustrating. Just get on with the story, already!

To my surprise, not everyone in the critique group agreed. And Kelly seized upon the dissent to disregard the comments of those of us who felt there was too much background, not enough present story time. Well, I'm biased, but I'm pretty confident I was right that the story felt like it was stuck in sludge. But I guess she'll either find out the old-fashioned way (rejection - hey, we've all had our share) or prove me wrong.

But in the meantime, I've been paying attention to how published authors kick their stories off and how much background they incorporate. I finally read a novel that I enjoyed (after a bit of a dry spell) and although Khaled Hosseini starts A Thousand Splendid Suns at nearly the beginning of his character's life -- she's five -- the story itself starts right then. He's not looking back and giving us background on Mariam's childhood, he's throwing us into the tumult from the beginning. An extended quote:

"Mariam was five hears old the first time she heard the word harami.

It happened on a Thursday. It must have, because Mariam remembered that she had been restless and preoccupied that day, the way she was only on Thursdays, the day when Jalil visited her at the kolba. To pass the time until the moment that she would see him at last, crossing the knee-high grass in the clearing and waving, Mariam had climbed a chair and taken down her mother's Chinese tea set. The tea set was the sole relic that Mariam's mother, Nana, had of her own mother, who died with Nana was two. Nana cherished each blue-and-white porcelain piece, the graceful curve of the pot's spout, the hand-painted finches and chrysanthemums, the dragon on the sugar bowl, meant to ward off evil.

It was this last piece that slipped from Mariam's fingers, that fell to the wooden floorboards of the kolba and shattered."

Hosseini has started to feed out information about Mariam and her world, but we're already caught in dramatic action. No overbearing narration.

A note on the book, by the way. I wasn't enthusiastic about reading it and was doing so out of obligation to the person who lent it to me. If you've read The Kite Runner, you know Hosseini pulls no emotional punches. And a novel about women in Afghanistan? Sure to be heart-wrenching, right? Well, it is. My face was bathed in tears when I was finished. But, still, I really liked it. The story takes a while to really grab you but when it does, it's unforgettable.

Has anyone had a similar discussion in their writing group? I'd be really interested to know what other people are going through with this.

1 comment:

Rowenna said...

I hear you on the crit group thing--I love knowing a character's background, but it has to be done in a way that doesn't drag things down. Some writers can put on the brakes and do this--they're very, very talented :) Most of us have to go about it the old-fashioned way--slipping in details here and there, sliding an occasional flashback in. Furtive-like :)

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma